Tag Archives: Aaron Robison

SFB from Nuts to 2017

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Okay, so I’ve reviewed San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker before. Like, well, five times. It’s a little humbling when you pen a shiny new review, only to discover that you’ve unwittingly used much of the exact same wording in past reviews. Actually, it’s embarrassing, or would have been, if I hadn’t caught myself before submitting THIS REVIEW of Nut’s opening night to Bachtrack. And when it came to penning a few words here, for The Classical Girl, whaddya know, the same thing started happening.

So let’s do this instead of risking self-plagiarism, not to mention boring you. What changes annually in an established production is the casting and the dance performance. Costumes, lighting, scenic design, the musical score—no changes. You can find my “baseline” review HERE, complete with links to past reviews. Read first… or not.

And now, without further ado, here are 14 Really Great Things worth mentioning

1) The gorgeous set: an Edwardian house with a posh living room, circa 1915, that I really want to live in. Act 1 just flies, with pantomime and dances that are elegant and unfettered. It’s why I can watch this production over and over.

2) Grooving on the little kids in the audience, hushed and wide-eyed and totally absorbed in everything happening, especially Drosselmeyer’s magic. Their hushed intake of breath when the Nut doll turned life-sized in a clever shifting of boxes (or however they do it. Six times now, and I still don’t get some of the “magic” tricks. Isn’t that so cool? Bravo, SFB.)

© Erik Tomasson

© Erik Tomasson

3) Rubén Martín Cintas’ Uncle Drosselmeyer, particularly compelling as he rose from within the fog during Clara’s dream, at the commencement of The Best Music Ever, and where he made Very Psychedelic Things happen.

4) The Best Music Ever = as the Christmas tree keeps growing and growing, Drosselmeyer does his mysterious stuff, and the music reaches this thundering crescendo. In a lightning-fast set change, furniture and wrapped presents are whisked away, replaced by wildly oversized ones and in the blink of an eye we’ve all been shrunk to mouse size. Best. Moment. Ever. Kudos to the incomparable San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and music director Martin West.

5) Opening night’s Mouse King’s (Alexander Reneff-Olson) antics. So entertaining, I kinda started rooting for him. Hilarious, too, was Dec 27th matinee’s Mouse King, Benjamin Freemantle, when he grabbed a big hunk of cheese and gnawed on it, dropping it in shock at the BOOM of the cannon the toy soldiers set off. Never noticed that detail before. Crack me up.

6) The snow. And more snow. And more. Opening night’s Snow Queen and King Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno were equally sublime, in this brilliantly staged Land of Snow.

Jennifer Stahl in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

Jennifer Stahl in Tomasson’s Nutcracker.
(© Erik Tomasson)

7) Little scuttling ladybugs, in the Act II opener, so cute you could scream. Wonderful use of the kids from the SF Ballet school, whose dancing is genuinely enjoyable to watch.

8) Sofiane Sylve’s elegant, never-too-sugary Sugar Plum Fairy. Quietly perfect.

9) Seeing corps dancers Isabella DeVivo and Mingxuan Wang dance Snow Queen and King on Dec 27th matinee. Occasional unsteadiness, but otherwise a delight to watch them, the way they ended each passage and/or step with regal finesse. I’ve seen DeVivo in soloist roles before; she made my 2016 promotion wish list (http://wp.me/p3k7ov-Cn) but I’ve never seen Mingxuan Wang in a big role. Wow, he did great. Give him more!

10) In Spanish Dance, seeing former trainee and new corps member Natasha Sheehan living up to the buzz she’s generated.

11) WanTing Zhao in Arabian Dance on opening night. She owns this role. Sexy, sinuous, classical, mysterious, like something out of an opium-laced dream. And she arrives onstage inside an oil lamp carried onstage by her partners Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Anthony Vincent. Way cool.

12) The pleasure of watching Max Cauthorn (also on my promotion wish list) continue to dance really well, particularly in Russian Dance on Dec 27th matinee. And speaking of Russian…

13) Finally learning when not to blink as the Russian Dance commences (a millisecond before the music) and the three dancers leap out from their respective papered Fabergé eggs. Gotta see it to appreciate it. An iconic holdover from a past staging, choreographed by Anatole Vilzak.

14) Hansuke Yamamoto dancing as Nut Prince on Dec 27th matinee. A longtime soloist, it was wonderful seeing him in this lead role. He might fall short of the powerhouse presence of some of the company’s male principals, but in its place he offers such graciousness, likeability, and clean technical work, with feather-soft landings to the jumps. Paired nicely with Koto Ishihara in the Grand Pas de Deux, whose performance was a solid notch up from last year, where she seemed a touch green, tentative in her pirouettes and presentation. Very rewarding to watch a dancer like this mature and develop artistically.

I love the way artistic director Helgi Tomasson gives his younger, newer dancers an opportunity to shine in solos during the Nut run. Here are castings and pairings that I wish I could have seen as well (some of which didn’t actualize due to injuries):

Sugar Plum Fairy

  • Jahna Frantziskonis
  • Norika Matsuyama
  • Elizabeth Mateer (new this year)
  • Isabella DeVivo

Queen and King of the Snow

  • Koto Ishihara, Francisco Mungamba
  • Elizabeth Mateer, Steven Morse
  • Norika Matsuyama, Hansuke Yamamoto
  • Isabella DeVivo, Max Cauthorn

Grand Pas de Deux

  • Lauren Strongin, Wei Wang
  • Julia Rowe, Angelo Greco (new this year)
  • WanTing Zhao, Tiit Helimets

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The company’s 2017 repertory season begins on Jan 24th with Program 1, featuring Tomasson’s “Haffner Symphony,” Bubeníček’s “Fragile Vesssels” and Justin Peck’s “In the Countenance of Kings.” Program 2 follows right on its heels on Jan 26th and features Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas,” Possokhov’s “Optimistic Tragedy” and Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016 (which I reviewed HERE.) Performances of these two programs are intertwined, date-wise, and will finish on Feb 4 and 5 respectively. And then, look out, because Frankenstein, a co-production with The Royal Ballet, opens on Feb 17th and you’re right in thinking this is going to be one unique, talked-about production. (Read my review of it HERE.) I’ll be leaving links for future program reviews here, as well. Look for those in mid-and-late March.

Want to know about new dancers and promotions for the 2016-17 season? Here you go!

Promotions/Level

  • Carlo Di Lanno                 Principal
  • Sasha de Sola                   Principal (just promoted! Effective Jan 2017)
  • Francisco Mungamba       Soloist
  • Julia Rowe                           Soloist
  • Wei Wang                            Soloist
  • WanTing Zhao                    Soloist
  • Blake Kessler                     Corps de Ballet (from apprentice)

New Company Members/Level

  • Ludmila Bizalion                Corps de Ballet
  • Angelo Greco                      Hired as soloist, promoted Feb 2017 to principal (Yay! Congrats!)
  • Elizabeth Mateer                Corps de Ballet
  • Aaron Robison                    Principal Dancer
  • Natasha Sheehan              Corps de Ballet (from SFB trainee program)

New Apprentices

  • Alexandre Cagnat
  • Shené Lazarus
  • Davide Occhipinti
  • Nathaniel Remez
  • Isabella Walsh

Congratulations to all San Francisco Ballet dancers and trainees on another successful Nut run, and I look forward to seeing all of you dance in 2017!

SFB’s 2016 Program 6 and 7

Breaking news on May 23, 2016: Promotions announced! See addendum (and my own personal promotion wish list) below!

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How quickly the time flies, over at the San Francisco Ballet, at least when you’re sitting in the audience, savoring the programs as they roll onto the War Memorial Opera House stage, entertain, enlighten, and roll right off, in anticipation of the next one. And now, the season is waning. This past weekend I had the luxury of taking in not just one program but two. In reverse order, which felt bewildering but fun, with a Saturday night performance of Program 7 and a Sunday matinee follow up of Program 6. It was a hell of a great weekend.

Saturday night’s opener, Balanchine’s “Themes and Variations,” is pure delight. Set to the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 in G, it pays homage to Imperial Russian classicism. Twin chandeliers dangle before an elegant blue backdrop. Women are clad in white tutus with blue satin bodices, the men in white tights and elegant, Imperial style teal jackets. When that stage fills with the ensemble–at one point there are twenty-four dancers moving about–it’s a glorious sight to behold. Balanchine is a genius at arranging dancers, moving them on and off fast, making the most of both ensemble and pas de deux parts. Demi-soloists Norika Matsuyama, Koto Ishihara, Lauren Strongin and Isabella DeVivo had a loveliness and precision that reminded me of music box ballerinas. Lead couple Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin excelled as well. She makes the simplest step, here an opening tendu, seem elaborate, and the most elaborate, taxing sequence seem effortless. Nedvigin, who will be leaving the company at the end of the season to head the Atlanta Ballet as its artistic director, gave us with high jumps and double tours, impressive beats, pirouettes and cat-like soft landings.

Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin in Balanchine’s Theme and Variations. (© Erik Tomasson)

I wasn’t crazy about Christopher Wheeldon’s 2002 minimalist “Continuum©,” set to a often-thorny keyboard score by György Ligeti, in spite of stellar performances from all of its eight dancers (corps dancer Steven Morse joining a cast of seven principals with impressive results), and pianists Mungunchimeg Buriad and Natal’ya Feygina. At 41 minutes, the ballet felt overlong, too austere, even grating. I have nice things to say about Sunday’s dose of Wheeldon, however, so let’s just jump on ahead to Justin Peck’s highly anticipated “In the Countenance of Kings.”

Justin Peck is certainly Someone to Watch in the ballet world. At 28, a soloist with the New York City Ballet, he has already amassed 30 commissioned works, and in 2014, was named the company’s choreographer-in-residence. “In the Countenance of Kings” is propulsive, packed with high octane movement, sound, swirling, running, leaping, that left me exhausted by the end. Here’s a fun video-meets-short film that excerpts the ballet. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this will cover me way beyond that.


Great dancing abounded. Joseph Walsh, in particularly, really produced the “wow!” factor for me that I’ve been waiting to see in him. As The Protagonist, he made great use of his solo time onstage. He tackles contemporary ballet with an appealing classicism that doesn’t restrain him from spells of exuberant abandon, flinging body, arms, head back in a way that’s clean, energetic and fun to watch. He shared the lead with Taras Domitro in Possokhov’s splendid “Swimmer” (my review HERE) last month, and now I can appreciate how up to the task he was. Dores André, too, shines in this ballet. It’s enjoyable to watch her assume a distinct identity in this, her first season as a principal. All the leads gave great performances. In the playbill, they are assigned names, which pose more questions than they answer (such as: am I supposed to glean a reference to something or someone? Quantus? Botanica? The Foil? Was there a story happening that I missed?) Regardless, Luke Ingham and Jennifer Stahl paired splendidly; Frances Chung was in her power-packed element, sharing a charming duet with André and another one with Nedvigin.

San Francisco Ballet in Peck’s In The Countenance Of Kings. (© Erik Tomasson)

Music came from indie artist/composer Sufjan Stevens’ “The BQE” (the Brooklyn Queens Expressway), orchestrated by classical horn player Michael P. Atkinson. The music is boisterous, fast moving and very Broadway in scope. Really, at times I felt like I was watching a Broadway show, particularly when stage lights, as part of the backdrop, flashed on, facing the audience. Coupled with a whole lot of horns, snares and drums, it felt like too much. I loved the energy of this ballet and the phenomenal dancing from the well-rehearsed ensemble cast. I’m just not sure I loved the whole, over-caffeinated shebang. I will get to find out next season, when the ballet returns (at which time I’ll be sure and skip my own post-dinner dose of caffeine just prior).

Program 6 and Sunday’s matinee performance seemed to give me what Saturday’s seemed lacking. A bit of an irony since I’d thought it might prove a little underwhelming after Program 7. Nope, it was great. For a video clip (too small to embed here), check out THIS.

Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham in Tomasson’s Prism. (© Erik Tomasson)

Just a few summarized thoughts on Program 6, since I’ve sort of gone over my word count for a review, but then again, I figure, there’s the exit door, you can use it any time, bye bye, and meanwhile, maybe some of you who attended this performance, as well, or danced in it, would like to hear my thoughts on it. What a great program. Lovely music, costumes, dancing. Nothing grating or pushing or making me worry that I’ve become an old fuddy-duddy with too-conservative tastes. Just neoclassicism at its finest. Opening the program was artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s “Prism,” initially a 2000 New York City Ballet commission. It’s set to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C Major (played with great finesse by Roy Bogas alongside the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra) and was beautiful to behold. Standouts included Mathilde Froustey in a tender pas de trois with Henry Sidford and Carlo Di Lanno, and a second movement pas de deux from Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets, as an ensemble shadowed them quietly from behind. Great costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) and dreamy lighting design (Mark Stanley). The big ensemble passages worked well, showcasing Tomasson’s ability to beautifully fill a stage and its space with the perfect amount of dancers and stimulus, reminding us that he trained under Balanchine. In the third movement, corps dancer Francisco Mungamba was given the role of the solo man,. While still a young technician, Mungamba seems to have that crucial ability to fill a stage with his personality and theatrical presentation. It was an exciting performance to watch.*

Alexei Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas,” in its San Francisco Ballet premiere, was another satisfying ballet, set to the piano music of Domenico Scarlatti (performed by Mungunchimeg Buriad). I found its neoclassical elegance to be so appealing, with the dancing both controlled and joyous.  Like the previous night’s “Continuum,” this ballet retains a small cast and delivers as much a dialogue between the six dancers, as it does a performance for the audience. It’s intimate, packed with fine, articulate dancing by Lorena Feijoo, Carlos Quenedit, Dores André, Vitor Luiz, Sofiane Sylve and Carlo di Lanno.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Rush. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Rush. (© Erik Tomasson)

I found “Rush©”, the weekend’s other Wheeldon piece, to be so much more enjoyable than the previous day’s. The choreography seemed more interesting to me, more varied, and the music, Bohuslav Martinů’s “Sinfonietta La Jolla for Chamber Orchestra and Piano,” was simply lovely, as were Jon Morrell’s costumes. Standouts included Sasha de Sola, partnered with great sensitivity by Luke Ingham, as well as Lauren Strongin with Francisco Mungamba, and Koto Ishihara with Wei Wang. All of “Rush” worked for me, from beginning to end. All of Program 6 did.

Program 6 runs to April 16 and Program 7 runs to the 17th. In Program 8, John Cranko’s acclaimed Onegin will complete the company’s season. I’ll be reviewing the April 30th opening night performance for Bachtrack; come back here for the link after that time. (And on May 3rd, HERE IT IS).

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My own personal promotion wish list…
* One last aside. I’ve really been enjoying the way Tomasson’s using corps dancers in soloist and lead roles, and over this weekend alone, I thoroughly enjoyed a half dozen such performances. Francisco Mungamba, Wei Wang, Steven Morse – I’m hoping to see at least one of these guys get a promotion to soloist some time soon. On the females’ side, my promotion wish list would include Norika Matsuyama, Isabella DeVivo. WanTing Zhao. And, okay, Julia Rowe and Jahna Frantziskonis. And I’ve got my eye on Max Cauthorn. And okay, Henry Sidford. And Lonnie Weeks. And it goes without saying that soloist Carlo Di Lanno is ready for promotion to principal. And here’s wishing all the best to the company’s three retiring principal dancers: Joan Boada, Pascal Molat and Gennadi Nedvigin. Well done, gents. Your contributions have been enormous and unforgettable. Thank you.

Addendum on May 24th – promotions announced! Always exciting news. Congratulations to all the wonderful dancers – even the ones not promoted (yet…) 

Promotions/Level

Carlo Di Lanno                    Principal Dancer
Francisco Mungamba        Soloist
Julia Rowe                           Soloist
Wei Wang                            Soloist
WanTing Zhao                    Soloist

Blake Kessler                     Corps de Ballet

New Company Members/Level

Ludmila Bizalion                Corps de Ballet
Angelo Greco                      Soloist
Elizabeth Mateer                Corps de Ballet
Aaron Robison                    Principal Dancer
Natasha Sheehan              Corps de Ballet

New Apprentices/Training

Alexandre Cagnat             SF Ballet School
Shené Lazarus                   SF Ballet School
Davide Occhipinti             SF Ballet School
Nathaniel Remez               SF Ballet School
Isabella Walsh                    SF Ballet School