Tag Archives: Martin West

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!

San Francisco Ballet’s Triple Treat: Maelstrom, Caprice, Rite of Spring

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It was a night for music lovers, not just ballet lovers, last Saturday at the San Francisco Ballet. Beethoven’s Piano Trio no. 1, Saint Saens’ Symphony no. 2 (injected with the sublime 2nd movement from his Symphony no. 3) and Stravinsky’s iconic The Rite of Spring. We are so fortunate, we of the San Francisco Bay Area, to have such quality music performances available, and not just from the Symphony across the street. Music director Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra did a knock-up job Saturday night. The Rite of Spring, in particular, was astonishing.

The night’s dancing, too, was sublime. There was Mark Morris’ Maelstrom, twenty years after its premiere, the first of eight ballets the San Francisco Ballet has commissioned from him. Caprice, a world premiere this season from SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson. Yuri Possokhov’s The Rite of Spring, a reprise from last year’s premiere that itself commemorated the centennial of the ballet’s first turbulent, riot-provoking Paris debut. Great stuff.

More about the opener, Mark Morris’ Maelstrom. Morris’s choreography is widely acclaimed for its musicality, craftsmanship and ingenuity. More of a modern choreographer at heart, he likes to push the boundaries on what constitutes classical movement. The result is neoclassicism tinted with modern, a flexed foot or hand thrown in, a pause in an inelegant position. Twenty years after its premiere, the ballet still looks fresh and interesting. The dancing felt rather busy in the first movement, however, with small groups of dancers repeating the same combinations, only some a few counts behind, producing a quasi-confused swirl of syncopated (and sometimes not) dancers, which I guess is a good definition of a maelstrom as well. The cast was a fourteen member ensemble. It was hard for me to follow which dancer was which. (Notable, in spite of this, were Sarah Van Patten and Sasha de Sola.) But it’s to the corps de ballet dancers’ credit that, often, I couldn’t even discern rank. Bravo (bravi?) to dancers Shannon Rugani, Steven Morse, Julia Rowe, Lee Alexandra Meyer-Lorey, Jeremy Rucker, Wei Wang. You all looked great amid your higher ranked peers.

Sasha De Sola and Steven Morse in Morris' Maelstrom. © Erik Tomasson

Sasha De Sola and Steven Morse in Morris’ Maelstrom.
© Erik Tomasson

A musical treat: a live piano trio, just off stage right, in the pit. Musicians—violinist Kay Stern, cellist Eric Sung, Roy Bogas on the piano—did a wonderful job. Beethoven’s Piano Trio no. 1 is nicknamed the “Ghost” trio for the ghostly beauty of second movement. It all worked so well, music and dancers and musicians. 

Hopping ahead to Possokhov’s The Rite of Spring, last year’s premiere celebrating the centennial of the 1913 Ballets Russes production, deemed so unorthodox it incited riots outside its Paris theater. Stravinsky’s music, created for the ballet, (choreographed by Nijinsky for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes), is extravagant, compelling, a mammoth of a score, at turns chaotic, sensual, gleeful, and terrifyingly remorseless.

Benjamin Stewart and James Sofranko in Possokhov's Rite Of Spring. © Erik Tomasson

Benjamin Stewart and James Sofranko in Possokhov’s Rite Of Spring.
© Erik Tomasson

Possokhov has nailed the mood, the original ballet’s intention. Based on Russian folklore, The Rite of Spring depicts a primal culture, relishing the arrival of spring and sensuality. Lights rise on a woodland set, a hillside incline, designed by Benjamin Pierce. Sleepy young women awaken, roll down it, and stand to greet the spring day, embracing it as well as their own sensuality (dresses slowly pulled up, over their heads, revealing their gorgeous young bodies, the ultimate symbol of fecundity). Young men join them, quivering and eager to embrace the spectacle (not to mention the girls). Ah, spring. But there’s a price to pay. A young woman, “the chosen,” must be sacrificed to appease the gods, so the others might live. The sensual, feral nature of the ballet, the choreography, was engrossing to watch last year, and even more enjoyable this time. Jennifer Stahl, as the chosen one, nailed the role for the second year in a row, and now officially owns it, as do the deliciously fearful pair of conjoined elders (sharing the same skirted costume) James Sofranko and Benjamin Stewart, spears in hand, who carry out the dictate. And kudos to Luke Ingham, the chosen one’s consort, his second big role for the night, following Caprice. Busy night for Ingham. Lots of lifting. Well done.

Sandwiched between these two ballets was Helgi Tomasson’s world premiere, Caprice, which featured nineteen dancers, including two pas de deux couples. A shifting backdrop designed by Alexander V. Nichols was mesmerizing: lit beams, like pillars intersected by one horizontal beam, all of which moved closer/further between movements, creating a different mood each time. Wonderfully effective. Costumes, designed by Holly Hynes, were flowing and lovely, the two principal women in paler colors than their ensemble counterparts. “Flowing and lovely” describes the neoclassical choreography as well. Lyrical, easy on the eye, no great risks, no pushing at the boundaries.

Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in Tomasson's Caprice. © Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in Tomasson’s Caprice.
© Erik Tomasson

Principals Maria Kochetkova, Davit Karapetyan and Yuan Yuan Tan rank among the company’s top dancers, and they all were in fine form. Tan, skillfully partnered by Luke Ingham, had her signature liquid elegance, those distinctive long limbs and feet and airy lyricism. In the second movement, she was slid along on the floor by Steven Morse and Hansuke Yamamoto (and Luke Ingham?) and it was so playful, so deliciously smooth and quick-moving, like watching a nice sailboat skim across the San Francisco Bay on a sunny day.

Davit Karapetyan, too, was a powerhouse that night. Is it just me or is he suddenly magnificent this season? There’s an authority, a power to his jumps, his upper body presentation made him thrilling to watch. Kochetkova, his partner, was wonderful; she always is. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her paired up right next to Tan, though. This ballet allows for a study in contrasts from these two very popular, beloved principals. The third movement, in particular, where the music shifts from Saint Saens’ Symphony no. 2 to the second movement his Symphony no. 3 gives us an unprecedented opportunity to watch not just one but two pas de deux lead couples sharing the adagio movement.

I’ve long been in love with this movement/symphony ( http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/haunted-by-saint-saens-organ-symphony/ ) which gave this shared pas de deux Peak Moment Status for me. Honestly, I can’t wax lyrically enough about it. The music, and the dance, transported me.

The last minute of the movement has the two pas de deux couples alternating overhead grand jeté lifts, moving from one side of the stage to the other. Lighting (by Christopher Dennis) was perfect. Both the movement and the music were gorgeous, dreamy. A six-note descent motif offers first the woodwinds. The violins repeat. There’s almost a searching motif, the first voice on a quest, the lower voice responding, a haunting counterpoint.

Take a listen for yourself, down below. The score traditionally calls for an organ (thus the symphony’s nickname, “The Organ Symphony”) but the SFB orchestra fared very well with a transcribed use of woodwind voices instead. The second movement starts around 10m29. The six-note descent section (think ethereal overhead grand-jeté lifts as you listen) is at 18m30.

No doubt about it, a night of great dance and music. Well done, San Francisco Ballet and SFB Orchestra both.

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