Tag Archives: Julia Rowe

San Francisco Ballet’s “Frankenstein”

Joseph Walsh in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson))

It was the perfect setting, weather-wise, for attending San Francisco Ballet’s Frankenstein last Saturday night, following Friday’s North American premiere of this co-commission with the Royal Ballet. Storm clouds scudded over the darkened February skies, recent rains abated, an uneasy truce between storms that you knew would not last. Frankenstein weather. Something big was about to happen.

People tend to draw their Frankenstein acumen through one of two sources: the 1818 Gothic classic by Mary Shelley, or the 1931 movie adaptation (or, truth be told, through Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein). The latter group might not be aware of the love story the original contains, nor the chaos wreaked because of love withheld. Choreographer Liam Scarlett calls his production, “a story of betrayal, curiosity, life, death, and above all, love.” This is Scarlett’s first full-length ballet; at only thirty, creator of the acclaimed 2014 Hummingbird, among others, he’s currently the Royal Ballet’s artist in residence. Employing the talents of John Macfarlane’s stage and costume design, David Finn’s lighting and Finn Ross’s projection design, this production is a feast for the eyes.

One of the benefits of attending the second night of a production is seeing the second cast. They were brilliant, to the last. In addition to powerful performances from Max Cauthorn and Lauren Strongin, as Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza, and Taras Domitro as The Creature, Julia Rowe and Angelo Greco delivered memorably as well. Act 1, set in late 18th century Geneva, allowed us to witness the metamorphosis of two young friends—Victor and the orphaned Elizabeth taken in by the Frankenstein family—who grow to fall in love. Cauthorn and Strongin paired wonderfully as young adults in love in a tender, lyrical pas de deux, replete with rapturous back arches, leaps, partnered turns that morphed into lifts. Both are dancing well beyond their rank—Cauthorn is in the corps and Strongin is a soloist—and surely promotions are imminent. (Please, Mr. Tomasson, promote Max Cauthorn now. Tonight. He’s earned it.) **Editor’s note on March 13th – Cauthorn’s promotion to soloist was just announced! Yippee! Big congrats, Max!

As this story goes, the death of Victor’s mother in childbirth throws a pall over the household on the eve of Victor’s departure to medical school. There, at Ingolstadt University, the grieving Victor takes keen interest in his professor’s lectures on the possibility of reanimation. Macfarlane’s circular anatomy theater set is spectacular, period-specific, featuring an 18th century replicate electrostatic machine, with wires and tubes and such that emit staticky  pops and snaps.

One of the ballet’s structural problems reveals itself around this time. At close to three hours, the production runs long. The fifty-minute first act has five scenes (and a prologue). Although the story delivered up to this point preps the audience nicely for what is to come, it might prove overlong to those anxious for the “real” drama to begin. Instead, ensemble dancing within each scene often seems presented to assure plenty of “ballet” and not just pantomime exposition. That said, a medical students’ cavort was charming, and soon a quartet of solemn-faced nurses in long skirts joined them, assistants to the Professor (James Sofranko). It began to feel odd, though, within this academic, institutional setting. Some places, like churches, libraries, psych wards, don’t lend themselves aesthetically to ballet. The presence of a cadaver splayed out behind the dancers on an observation table likely didn’t help. And there is simply no way to watch someone dance with a dismembered limb or a brain in a jar without it seeming either creepy or hilarious, or a mix of both. Which may not have been the goal.

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson))

But finally, after a tavern ensemble frolic, the long awaited moment: Victor’s return to the anatomy lab that stormy evening, his inspired efforts, the patched-together cadaver being raised to the skies as lightning flashes all around, the machine exploding in a pyrotechnic dazzle, accompanied by Lowell Lieberman’s wonderfully dramatic commissioned score. It was spectacular, operatic in its intensity.

Taras Domitro, as The Creature brought to life, delivered an unforgettable performance. Costumed in an unearthly pale unitard with the to-be-expected stitches and gashes and blood speckles that worked brilliantly and showcased Domitro’s superb form and musculature, he brought a nuanced vulnerability to the role. You could almost love this Creature. You’re certainly stirred to pity at his plight, as Victor recoils in horror and rejects his creation. The Creature’s “other-ness” was cleverly depicted in quirks: little head rolls, cocking the head in a not-normal way. We, as the audience, get to follow his evolution. In the beginning, he can hardly walk, but learns by observation and imitation. By the final act, he has discovered how to effortlessly fit in to a crowd of waltzing revelers, employing a “blink and you’ve missed him” ninja presence that rattles Victor terribly, who continues to reject this horror he’s created. The power The Creature now holds is formidable—but what powers The Creature, in turn, is the childlike longing to be accepted, loved by his creator, to not be so alone.

The story doesn’t end well, as you probably know (unless your reference is Young Frankenstein, which ends quite adorably). Victor’s attempts to block out his deed and The Creature fail. The Creature’s failed attempts at love and acceptance have curdled into maniacal rage. And yet, still the longing. In the final scene, Elizabeth’s sorrowful pas de deux with The Creature (who has learned to perfectly imitate Victor’s movements) is so poignantly danced by both, it breaks your heart to watch. So does the ensuing pas de deux between The Creature and Victor, desperate and grappling, overflowing with raw emotion. These two final pas de deux showcase Scarlett’s choreographic brilliance, and the dancers at their best. Utterly unforgettable.

Vitor Luiz in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson)

I loved this ballet. I didn’t love it because I thought it was a perfect ballet and did everything right. I loved it because it was a great story to slip into, with fabulous sets, music and dancing, and the honest human—or inhuman—emotions conveyed. In its scope and appeal, it’s very cinematic and, as such, holds tremendous potential to draw in new viewers, particularly males who might not otherwise consider going to the ballet on the grounds that it’s too girly. Even my teen son told me, “now that’s one ballet I would go to.”

Do yourself a favor and check it out.

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

San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's Swan Lake. (© Erik Tomasson)

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Swan Lake.  (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet patrons love their story ballets, and the most beloved is surely Swan Lake. Whether it’s because of, or in spite of the 2010 film, Black Swan, seeing this ballet at least once seems to be on everyone’s bucket list. Next to Nutcracker, this is what draws the non-ballet-goer to the ballet. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson likely considered this when restaging the production in 2009, still largely faithful to the 1895 Petipa/Ivanov masterpiece which, everyone agrees, simply can’t be surpassed. Many have tried; restagings abound. This is Tomasson’s second effort, in fact, after his tremendously successful 1988 restaging. He’d taken over the San Francisco Ballet just three years earlier, while the company was still considered green, regional level. The production was a game-changer for all. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff reported that it “puts the San Francisco Ballet on the international dance map,” which it did, alongside Tomasson’s careful attention to all the right detail in the ensuing years. (You can read her review HERE. 28 years later it’s still a great read.)

Last Saturday night, the lobby of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House felt like a New Year’s Eve party. People were dressed in their finest, buzzing with enthusiasm, eager to spend a night watching ballet. In that crowd were balletomanes, donors, longtime subscribers, and yes, the new-to-the-ballet individuals. For whom Tomasson created a story prologue in the 2009 restaging. Now the first-time viewer gets to see how Odette falls prey to the evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, and gets turned into a swan.

Want more of the story details, dear befuddled reader who has come here to glean more information prior to your own foray into the world of ballet and seeing Swan Lake? Here you go.

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Siegfried is a prince whose mother informs him, on the eve of his 21st birthday, that he needs to settle down and get hitched. He has a restless, romantic spirit, and isn’t too happy about Mom’s dictate. After an evening of celebratory festivities, he heads out into the night, crossbow in hand. He spots a group of swans overhead and shortly thereafter sees Odette, beautiful queen of the swans. She is entrapped, like her flock of female subjects, in this swan body because the sorcerer Von Rothbart put a curse on all of them. By day, they must do the swan thing, and it’s only at night that they turn back into humans. It’s a rough existence, as you might imagine. Only True Love can break the curse. And if that True Love is betrayed, well, she and her swan minions are screwed, forced to live out their lives as swans, 24/7. Seeing Odette, the prince is instantly smitten. Dancing with her, infatuation deepens into love. He wants no other bride after that, none of the foreign princesses his mother presents to him the next night at his birthday ball. But Von Rothbart, understanding Siegfried’s love for Odette has the power to ruin his perfectly wonderful evil world, appears at the ball. Using sorcery, he delivers an Odette look-alike, his daughter Odile, who, as the infamous Black Swan, seduces the prince, deceiving him into believing yes, this is his beloved! He agrees to marry her, all excited-like, but once a vow is made, he catches a glimpse of the real Odette outside, agonized, just as Von Rothbart and Odile reveal their true selves. And, well, all is ruined. Except that true love, as in most such story ballets, will prevail.

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For this 2009 restaging, Tomasson collaborated with costume and set designer Jonathan Fensom, Tony Award nominee for his Broadway theater production designs. Fensom wanted to push the boundaries on respecting Swan Lake’s classicism, yet lifting it, making it more sophisticated. In many ways he succeeded. In other ways, it lacks. The set is nicely uncluttered. Fensom chose one dominant scenic element for each set, keeping it striking, symbolic. In Act I, large wrought iron gates lead out onto palace grounds. Act II features an enormous full moon backdrop and a huge slab of black rock — a shore? — that poses more questions than it answers (such as, if this is the shore, where’s the lake?). For Act III, we have a grand central staircase, that looks more Art Deco than 19th century. (The original production is set a few centuries back.) Beautiful costumes for royalty and the swans alike, except for Michael Ward’s regrettable feathery caps—literally, like swim caps—on the swans, which, as one reviewer wittily pointed out, makes everyone look like Liza Minnelli.

But the contemporary treatment (which includes Jennifer Tipton’s effective lighting) clears the space for the dancing, which, along with the music, is superlative. Among the night’s many standout performances were pas de trois dancers Dores André, Sasha de Sola and Wei Wang in Act I. Foreign princesses in Act III, each representing the flavor of their country: Jennifer Stahl as the Spanish princess, with partners Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Steven Morse. Rebecca Rhodes as Czardas Princess, partnered by Sean Orza. Norika Matsuyama as the Neapolitan Princess, with Diego Cruz. Russian Princesses Elizabeth Powell and Lauren Strongin, who offered sprightly fare with partners Myles Thatcher and Wei Wang.

Swan Lake’s corps de ballet is a huge part of the production’s beauty, and few corps de ballets look as lovely and polished as the San Francisco Ballet’s. They are a joy to behold when the full ensemble of thirty swans fills the stage. The corps are unsung heroes from a technical perspective: the audience is unaware (rightly so) of the effort required to hold still, right leg tucked back, for minutes at a time. Over and over, the dancers run in, strike a pose, and hold, and hold. So incredibly effective and such a stirring sight. Jennifer Stahl and WanTing Zhao as the two Swan Maiden danced well, as did the quartet of cygnets (Ellen Rose Hummel, Lauren Parrott, Julia Rowe and Emma Rubinowitz). If people recognize only one scene from Swan Lake,  this is probably it, parodied countless times, the melody popping up in advertisements since commercials started popping up.

Here’s a link. You’ll nod and say yes, of course.

Carlo Di Lanno makes a winning Prince Siegfried. A soloist hired in 2014, he takes this role and makes it his own with technical precision and a fluid, masterly stage presence that leaves little doubt that he will soon be promoted to principal. Sofiane Sylve as Odette/Odile was a thrill to behold. Beautiful technique, gorgeous arms, with bird-like flutters and mannerisms that were never overdone. Beautiful extensions and refinement. Her feet, wow. The way her back foot in sousous began to quiver ((Oh, be still my heart; what is this feeling?!) before she bourréd hastily away from Siegfried. And later, the way she draped herself against Siegfried seemed to embody love and pure longing. Sometimes you watch a lead couple enact an admirable performance of two people in love but you never really buy it. This felt like the real deal; their chemistry was palpable. Really, great casting here.

The music: another “oh wow.” I could write an entire blog about how Tchaikovsky’s score stirs me. The tragic thing is that Tchaikovsky died thinking Swan Lake had been a failure (as, indeed, the 1877 poorly choreographed and received version had been). The ballet and its score was only revived in 1895 with the Petipa/Ivanov version. Suffice to say, it’s a masterpiece, and if, like myself, you love classical music with a gorgeous symphonic sound, this is the ballet for you. Merit also is due, of course, to the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, led on Saturday night by conductor Luke Ming. A great time to mention that the Orchestra won two Grammys this past month. Read all about it HERE. Exciting times for this well-deserving orchestra, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, as well. New concertmaster, violinist Cordula Merks, delivered gorgeous violin solos on Saturday night, during the White Swan and Black Swan pas de deux respectively.

The Swan Lake run is over, alas, but fear not. Another full-length story ballet, Coppélia, is just around the corner. This one is fun, fantastical, candy-colored and hilarious. You can order tickets online HERE. Dates are March 8 – 13, with two shows on both Saturday and Sunday. Here’s a taste:

PS: Just discovered this: a lovely trailer of the production showing Yuan Yuan Tan as Odette/Odile, partnered by Tiit Helimets as Prince Siegfried. What’s YOUR opinion on the feather caps?

San Francisco Ballet heads into 2016

 

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So, I got to attend a second performance of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker this past week, which confirms my hunch that, literally, I can’t get enough of this company and this production. Opening night or weekday matinee, it doesn’t matter. It was all brilliant. And watching a second performance is great fun because you get to enjoy things from a second perspective, both spatially and mentally. Different casting allowed me the opportunity to observe more new faces in new places. Artistic director Helgi Tomasson likes to distribute solo opportunities more broadly, likely as a test drive for casting choices he might make during the 2016 season. What’s more, since the company doesn’t perform locally during the fall months, this is our first glimpse of the roster of company dancers announced back in July. Exciting times.

But before I go into 2016 and the new faces you might see on the War Memorial Opera House stage, allow me to recap some of my Nutcracker musings.

© Erik Tomasson

© Erik Tomasson

I’ve raved about this production before, HERE  and HERE, and you can see my Bachtrack review of this year’s opening night HERE. I won’t duplicate my words, nor my efforts. Really, review writing can be quite exhausting. To say as much as possible, using detail and not feeling-laden description, all squeezed into 800 words – whew, hard for me. Far easier to produce 80K words, particularly if I’m allowed feeling-laden description, which is why I write ballet novels as well, and thank goodness there’s a place for both in this world. A quick shout-out here to worthy opening night performers I mentioned in my Bachtrack review: Val Caniparoli, Sienna Clark, Gaetano Amico, Francisco Mungamba, Lauren Parrott, Davit Karapetyan, Jennifer Stahl, Luke Ingham, Vanessa Zahorian, WanTing Zhao, Ellen Rose Hummel, Jahna Frantziskonis, Ami Yuki, Maggie Weirich, Rebecca Rhodes, Diego Cruz, Lonnie Weeks, Frances Chung. You all rocked.

And the Dec 28th Monday matinee was equally full of noteworthy dancing. Benjamin Freemantle and Emma Rubinowitz as the dancing dolls were a hit; these always are. It’s our first view of dancing in Act I, which is not to say Act 1 is in any way dull. The party scene, with its sumptuous period costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) and opulent set (Michael Yeargan) are magically effective. As I myself enjoy it, as an adult, I can’t help but imagine how wowed out the little kids in the audience must be. I never saw Nutcracker as a little kid (although I knew every note of the score by heart; cultural exposure in our household amounted to listening to records on the stereo versus attending live performances, which makes more financial sense when you are a family of ten) but I can appreciate how freakin’ magical the whole thing must be to them. Especially the SFB’s superior production, like when the Christmas tree grows tenfold amid climactic music and in a matter of seconds, the furniture and wrapped presents get whisked away, replaced by wildly oversized counterparts, thus completing the living room’s transformation into a fantastical dream world. Spine-tingling, every time I see it. It must have blown the little kids’ minds.

If I had to pick one number out of the whole production that consistently wows, it would have to be Land of Snow. The choreography, the lighting, the costumes, the two tons (no exaggeration) of falling snow, the music—it all works so wonderfully, and every time I see it, I marvel anew. On Monday afternoon, Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham were the Queen and King of Snow. I saw them opening night, as well. Normally I’d prefer to see all new dancers in the roles so that I can run a comparison, but this served to confirm that this couple looks very, very good. It’s great to see the way Stahl keeps upping her game. Wow, the way her back leg rises so high in partnered leaps and sisonne lifts. (For you non-dance readers, be aware that anyone can get that front leg high. It’s getting—and keeping—the back one high that elevates it to an art form.)

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

Jennifer Stahl © Erik Tomasson

Sofiane Sylve was a last minute casting change as the Sugar Plum Fairy, which disappointed me at first, because I’d been looking forward to seeing Mathilde Froustey in the role. But these things happen during a thirty-performance run, particularly toward the end, when bodies are running down and are prone to injury. Sylve is a technically flawless, nuanced dancer who maintains a certain sense of mystery and distance in her dancing, which at first I felt detracted from the role. (I mean, the name “Sugar Plum Fairy” describes it all: sweetness and bubbles and pastels and accessible smiles and darling fairy-ness.) But what seemed a bit spare in Sylve’s first solo became the perfect touch later, during Waltz of the Flowers (Tomasson’s production uses the Sugar Plum Fairy as the soloist here, and saves the Grand Pas de Deux for another lead dancer.) Sylve’s dancing reminds me of a good Bordeaux wine, that seems beautifully constructed but a little spare at first, even austere. You don’t think the end result is going to be wow enough but then it warms, opens and releases what makes it extraordinary, so that by the end you are thinking yes, yes, that understated interpretation works really, really well.

I said I wasn’t going to write another review, but here I am, writing another review. And yet, before I cease writing another review, I have to mention the thrill of watching a perfectly executed Russian dance on Monday afternoon. It’s such a crowd-pleaser, the way the three dancers burst out Faberge-esque eggs at precisely the same instant, and surely that’s no easy feat. I visualize the three of them, in their respective little egg capsules, mentally counting, praying their timing is in synch. Opening night it was the tiniest hair short of perfect synchronicity. How often, I wonder, do they get it perfect? Anyway. On Monday, they did. Another fun thing: soloist James Sofranko, I recognized, but not the other two dancers, David Preciado and Victor Prigent. Riffling through the company roster pages afterward brought no answers either. It turns out they are students at the San Francisco Ballet school. To which I can only say WOW. Well done, gents! The trio of you were spot-on, technically impressive, and looked great.

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Thumbs’ up, as well, for Grand Pas de Deux couple Koto Ishihara and Gennadi Nedvigin’s performance. This was a big role for Ishihara, promoted from corps to soloist last season. I sense I wasn’t the only one holding my breath as she worked her way through the “harder than it looks” opening adagio, a little wobbly on a first set of partnered pirouettes but admirably rebounding with the support of her Nutcracker Prince partner, veteran principal Nedvigin. He has never before seemed like such a prince, in every sense of the word. High leaps and tours, solid landings in perfect positions, a noble stage presence, strong, unobtrusive support to Ishihara. There was this perfect moment, toward the end of the adagio, when Ishihara, in an arabesque en pointe, having just completed a partnered promenade, released Nedvigin’s hand, and thus his support (very much like Aurora’s “Rose Adagio” arabesque in Sleeping Beauty) and held the balancing pose, and held it, and raised that back leg even higher, and stretched everything out, and wow, it was so impressive, so rewarding to watch. You just know it had to have been an exhilarating moment for her, sort of an, okay, I was nervous before and my foot didn’t go all the way up to passé for those first pirouettes but I will nail this balance, I will. And she did. And the audience just loved her for it. We loved her before; we all like to watch and support new dancers in new roles. But from that moment on, everything seemed to go that much better. It was a delight to watch. Brava, Koto.

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As I mentioned above, Tomasson likes giving his younger, newer dancers an opportunity to shine in solos. Here are castings that I wish I could have seen as well. (Not all dancers are new and/or new to big roles, but you get the idea…)

Sugar Plum Fairy:

  • Jahna Frantziskonis
  • Norika Matsuyama
  • Julia Rowe

Queen and King of the Snow:

  • Lauren Strongin, Hansuke Yamamoto
  • WanTing Zhao, Carlo Di Lanno
  • Koto Ishihara, Max Cauthorn

And since this blog was intended to be a glimpse of what to expect and who to see in 2016, here’s a list of new company members:

  • Lauren Strongin, joining as a soloist this season (from Houston Ballet)

Corps de ballet, new to the company

  • Kamryn Baldwin
  • Kristine Butler
  • Jahna Frantziskonis (From Pacific Northwest Ballet, mentioned in Dance Magazine as “On The Rise”)

Corps de ballet, promoted up from apprentice

  • Thamires Chuvas
  • Benjamin Freemantle
  • John-Paul Simoens
  • Maggie Weirich
  • Ami Yuki
  • Samantha Bristow

Apprentices

  • Grace Choi
  • Blake Kessler
  • Anastasia Kubanda
  • Chisako Oga
  • Francisco Sebastião

A congratulations to Dores André, who has been promoted to principal from soloist. And a “great to see you dancing again” to Sasha de Sola who was out much of last season with an injury. I missed her in this round of performances; hoping I’ll get to see her soon!

A final “well done” to the other dancers I wasn’t able to mention in my review-but-not, above. Well done, Spanish dancers Kimberly Braylock-Olivier, Jillian Harvey, Sean Bennett, Steven Morse, Alexander Reneff-Olson; Arabian dancers Grace Shibley, Benjamin Freemantle, John-Paul Simoens; Chinese dancer Max Cauthorn; French dancers Kristine Butler, Maggie Weirich, WanTing Zhao, and all the lovely, lovely ensemble dancers in Land of Snow and Waltz of the Flowers. The success of any Nutcracker is a collaborative effort, and Helgi Tomasson is fortunate indeed to have such a wealth of talented dancers to choose from. (And one last additional, final-and-this-time-I-mean-it “brava!” to WanTing Zhao for her opening night performance in Arabian. My words of praise surpassed my 800 word maximum word count on my Bachtrack review and, alas, I had to cut them. You were gorgeous!)

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In closing, here’s a summary of what you’ll see from the San Francisco Ballet in their 2016 season (in their own words). The season commences on January 24th and continues through to May 8th. I will be attending and reviewing Program 1’s opening performance; check back here for a link to my review. ((And on January 27th, here’s that review!))

Highlights include world premieres by Liam Scarlett and Justin Peck; three full-length story ballets: Swan Lake, Coppélia, Onegin; the North American premiere of William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts; and the SF Ballet debut of Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas. The season also includes the return of last season’s hit Swimmer by Yuri Possokhov, as well as audience favorites by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon, and Mark Morris.