Heather Desaulniers

  • Berkeley Ballet Theater and Post:Ballet present Nutcracker
    Scottish Rite Center, Oakland 
  • Smuin Contemporary Ballet – The Christmas Ballet
    Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco 
  • San Francisco Ballet – Nutcracker
    War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

It’s already midway through December, which means that the holidays are in full effect – parties, winter-themed events and plenty of festive light displays. But when do the holidays officially begin for you? Is it the day after Thanksgiving, the trip to the tree lot, or when you hear the first carol in a store? For me, it’s when holiday dance performances arrive onstage. And this year, things got rolling early on.

Post:Ballet and Berkeley Ballet Theater Studio Company
Photo Tricia Cronin

Dec 2nd – The first weekend in December was the kick-off for many a Bay Area holiday dance calendar, including mine. The place: Oakland’s historic Scottish Rite Center. The ballet: Nutcracker. The performers: the professional artists of Post:Ballet and the talented students of Berkeley Ballet Theater. With choreography and artistic direction by Robin Dekkers, joined by Christian Squires on the overall concept, this charmingly sweet, re-imagined Nutcracker took several fun departures from the traditional story. There was still a party and still a magical journey, but along the way, new characters were introduced. In addition to a second youth protagonist and a drag artist storyteller, many of the  familiar roles in the narrative were revamped with an eye towards nature and natural forces. There was flora, fauna and fungi. A sunlight fairy and rose quartz. Woodland creatures, a snowy owl and a Nutcracker bird. Scenes, like the battle, were also revamped while the snowstorm was given new energy. And the whole ballet unfolded over one-act (approx. seventy minutes), making it approachable even for the youngest of dance patrons. Bold colors, fabric props and innovative design framed all the action. Joy and happiness abounded. While Dekkers’ choreography was stylistically varied, there was a common choreographic thread throughout – strong ballet technique was always the foundation for phrase material, whether contemporary or classical. The students and teachers at Berkeley Ballet Theater should be commended – the next generation of performers is being incredibly well-trained and impeccably rehearsed. What a lovely start to the season!

Dec 14thA week and a half later, across the bridge, Smuin Ballet’s annual holiday spectacular had landed in San Francisco after touring various locations around the Bay. A glorious dance revue, The Christmas Ballet has been providing a hearty dose of festive spirit for twenty-nine years! 

The program is typically divided into two halves – the more traditional music and dance of ‘Classical Christmas’ and a grand mosaic of fun genres in ‘Cool Christmas’. The line-up of short jolly dances (the majority choreographed by company founder Michael Smuin) changes slightly from year to year, but some audience favorites and company mainstays made their way onto the stage Thursday night. The sober ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel’. A sprightly ‘The Gloucestershire Wassail’. The comical ‘Santa Baby’. 

Maggie Carey in The Christmas Ballet
Photo Chris Hardy

Every year, some premieres do get added to The Christmas Ballet’s canon. A trio danced by Gabrielle Collins, Tess Lane and Maggie Carey, ‘Catalan Carol’ was royal, grand and full of charged drama. Choreographed by Amy Seiwert, who takes over as Smuin’s Artistic Director next season, the phrases were imbued with crisp, fluttery footwork – beats and boureés aplenty. Act 2’s premiere was from former company dancer Nicole Haskins, a vivacious, dynamic trio performed by Ricardo Dyer, Carey and Marc LaPierre. Every moment was undeniably rhythmical and jazzy – these new additions get more inventive year after year. Other standouts of the evening included Terez Dean Orr and Dyer in Haskins’ ‘Peaceful Prayer’. Hauntingly dramatic and emotionally charged, their partnered turning sequence was quite something. The mid-century nostalgia of ‘Winter Weather’ led right into a heartfelt, yet humorous rendition of Seiwert’s ‘Please Come Home’. And Rex Wheeler’s (another Smuin alum) ‘Silver Bells’ included a lovely visual cue. Legs gracefully swung through the air like a pendulum, or more aptly, like a bell.

The Christmas Ballet runs until December 24th.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker
Photo © Reneff-Olson Productions

Dec 17th – And last but certainly not least – San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker! Choreographed by former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, SFB’s version of the beloved holiday ballet is truly glorious. The costumes, the sets, the music. The characters, the dancing, the décor. For two hours, audiences indulge in a festive feast of surprise and delight, witnessing Clara and her Nutcracker Prince’s otherworldly expedition.

Act I’s party scene, transformation and battle all went off with SFB’s usual refinement and energy. The magic tricks intrigued as always and Drosselmeyer’s (Val Caniparoli) dancing dolls were superb. While I can’t be sure of this, it felt like there were some new choreographic touches injected here and there, keeping everything fresh and up to date. Corps de ballet member Mingxuan Wang was a force as the Nutcracker Prince, as was Norika Matsuyama and Joshua Jack Price (also a corps dancer) as Queen and King of the Snow. In fact, the snow scene (my favorite) and its internal pas de deux were the best I’ve seen in a while. So technically clear! 

Act II also showcased that stunning clarity save some minor traffic jams during the Waltz of the Flowers: Wang’s miming scene, the Spanish pas de cinq, the coordination of the French trio, Katherine Barkman’s Sugar Plum Fairy and Jasmine Jimison’s grown-up Clara. Jimison has such strong relevés, especially during her solo where she floats backwards in a series of coupé derriere. And the fouettés by both Jimison and Wang in the coda were amazing. It was like Wang was glued to one spot with his standing leg – he never wavered even an inch. I wonder if during this season, there may be some well-deserved promotions! 

SFB’s Nutcracker runs until December 30th.