Tag Archives: Max Cauthorn

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!

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.

San Francisco Ballet and the (sorta) first Nutcracker

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Willem Christensen and Gisella Caccialanza, 1944

It hadn’t been intended as a “timeless holiday classic,” that first year, on Christmas Eve day, 1944, when Willem Christensen, artistic director of the fledgling San Francisco Ballet, presented to audiences his complete, two-act Nutcracker production. He’d known he was doing something relatively new. The only other complete Nutcracker ballet outside Russia had been in London by the Vic-Wells Ballet (a pre-precursor to the Royal Ballet) in 1934. The Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo, an offshoot from the disbanded Ballets Russes, had been touring its own one-act “Nutcracker Suite” production since 1940, but not with any holiday theme in mind. Christensen wanted the full works. He met up with two Ballet Russe luminaries during one of their San Francisco stops: George Balanchine, ballet master, and ballerina Alexandra Danilova. The three of them sat and Christensen listened as the Russians talked about the original two-act Maryinski production, the specific details they remembered from past productions, what had made it magical. Christensen voiced his own ideas and the two Russians nodded, smiled, and offered the Russian equivalent of “dude, go for it.”

So he did.

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The 1944 production was a labor of love and a collaborative effort involving all the San Francisco Ballet dancers and staff. A $1000 budget had to stretch across all cost, including Antonio Sotomayor’s scenic design, Russell Hartley’s costume design, and 143 costumes. Since it was wartime and material for making clothes [much less costumes] was rationed, the dancers helped by standing in long lines to purchase the allocated 10-yard lengths of fabric. At a Goodwill store, Russell Hartley discovered a treasure: red velvet stage curtains from San Francisco’s closed-down Cort Theatre that the company bought and fashioned into Act 1 costumes. (The remaining fabric would go on to produce red velvet costumes for another ten years.)

Gisella Cassialanza Christesen, wife of Lew Christensen (then serving in the army, but who would come back and help run the company, taking over as artistic director) and the production’s Sugar Plum Fairy, shared these amusing impressions. “Onna White helped me make my costume, which was really awful. We made our own tights then too. They weren’t like tights worn today. We had to sew our stockings onto little pants to make tights and, like old-style tights, they’d bag out and wouldn’t bounce back and cling to your legs. We sewed pennies or nickels to the waistbands so we’d have something to grab onto to yank up the tights.  You couldn’t practice pliés or anything before a performance or else you’d be standing there with baggy knees when the curtain came up.”*

They did it, these determined, talented dancers, carrying armfuls of costumes across the street to the theater on Christmas Eve day, 1944, for a matinee performance of America’s first full-length Nutcracker Ballet. The performance was a rousing hit. And oh, what a holiday classic they started. (It was, in truth, Balanchine’s own full-length production, ten years later, that would really set the ball rolling in the U.S., and funding for the arts in the 1970’s even more so, but why spoil the pretty story here?)

SFB dancers Sue Loyd, Gloria Canicilla, and Sally Bailey
SFB dancers Sue Loyd, Gloria Canicilla, and Sally Bailey (year?)

Here’s a fun archival photo:

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The true first Nutcracker ballet. Imperial Mariinski Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia, 1892

Fast forward 122 years, to 2014. This year, the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker is notable for another reason: it’s the ten-year anniversary of San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s current production. (Tomasson, BTW, took over as artistic director after the death of aforementioned, long-time artistic director Lew Christensen.) Here, we get a distinctly San Francisco version of the holiday classic. It’s set in 1915 San Francisco, during the time of the Panama Pacific Exposition, which helped celebrate the city’s rise from the ashes after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. In this version of the story, Clara is an adolescent, on the cusp of awakening to the adult world around her. It lends an elegance and sophistication to the story that serves it well. I’m crazy about the production; the quality of dance and the set (Michael Yeargan) and costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) is unparalleled. You can read my review of the opening night performance here: http://us.bachtrack.com/review-nutcracker-san-francisco-ballet-war-memorial-opera-house-san-francisco-december-2014.

Kudos to all the wonderful dancers on Friday night, particularly Ricardo Bustamante, Max Cauthorn, Sean Orza, Mathilde Froustey,  Dores André, Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. Oh, heck, ALL the Act II soloists: Lee Alex Meyer-Lorey, Gaetano Amico, Sean Bennet, Steven Morse joining Dores André in the Spanish dance. Dana Genshaft, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Anthony Spaulding in Arabian; Francisco Mumgamba in Chinese; Kristina Lind, Jennifer Stahl, WanTing Zhao in French; Hansuke Yamamoto, Esteban Hernandez, Wei Wang in Russian. And Act 1’s Snow Queen and King, Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro.

What a show you all put on. Willem Christensen would be so proud.

Willampor

* Text courtesy of San Francisco Ballet’s fact sheet and archives.

PS: Looking for more recent and/or specific dance reviews? You can find all those links HERE

San Francisco Ballet time again!

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Watching the San Francisco Ballet perform Nutcracker is a big deal for two reasons. First, because the company does a bang-up, never-seen-it-done-better job on the production. Second, it gives SFB patrons a chance to see what the company is shaping up to look like for their upcoming winter/spring repertoire season. Rosters change, dancers come and go, and we haven’t seen our SFB dancers performing since they closed their 2013 season last May. It’s a long time to wait. As the lights dimmed on Nutcracker opening night at the War Memorial Opera House and the jaunty Tchaikovsky overture commenced, I thought, dang. It’s good to be back here.

The December 11th performance was as great as I’d hoped. You can find my review of it here, at Bachtrack. http://us.bachtrack.com/review-dec-2013-sfballet-nutcracker-san-francisco?destination=%2Finstrument%2Fchoreography The performance run will continue through December 29th. If you’re even pondering the possibility of squeezing it in, go for it. It’s a holiday classic, and a classic that started right here for U.S. audiences, on this very stage, on Christmas Eve day, 1944. (Russia gets credit for the 1892 premier.) Yet another third reason it’s thrilling to watch San Francisco Ballet.

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Here’s new talent brought in from other companies for the 2014 season:

  • Mathilde Froustey, from Paris Opera Ballet, joining as a principal
  • Simone Messmer, from American Ballet Theatre, joining as a soloist
  • Julia Rowe and Grace Shibley, from Oregon Ballet Theatre (precipitated, perhaps, by the  resignation of Christopher Stowell as artistic director in late 2012?), joining the corps de ballet.

Further new additions to the corps de ballet roster include Isabella DeVivo and Esteban Hernandez. Alexandra Meyer-Lorey has returned after a year’s absence; Nicole Ciapponi was off the company roster in July 2013 and back on in August—yay! The following former apprentices have been promoted to the corps de ballet: Lacey Escabar, Lauren Parrott, Alexander Reneff-Olson, Emma Rubinowitz, and Wei Wang. Five new apprentices have joined the company: Liana Carpio, Aaron Renteria, Miranda Silveira, Mingxuan Wang and Max Cauthorn. The latter, Cauthorn, already looks like he’s being put to good use, dancing his way favorably through Nutcracker as one of the Russian dance trio, and as Madame du Cirque’s (AKA Mother Ginger) dancing bear. New corps dancer Esteban Hernandez joined him in the Russian dance, along with soloist Hansuke Yamamoto, for a strong opening night performance with great ensemble work between the three, which I loved watching (did you read my review yet? Because I mention it there. So go read it).

Also on Nutcracker opening night I was pleased to see corps de ballet dancers Kristina Lind and Marie-Claire D’Lyse getting some quality stage time alongside soloist Jennifer Stahl in the French dance trio. Lind and D’Lyse also got later shots at a principal role, cast as the role of Queen of the Snow on Saturday Dec 14th and  Wednesday December 18th respectively (matinee performances). New corps de ballet dancer Julia Rowe performed as the Sugar Plum Fairy on Tuesday, Dec 17’s matinee performance. (At Oregon Ballet Theatre, she was a soloist with experience in principal roles as well.) Which all means that Helgi Tomasson has a very strong group of corps dancers this year, and oh, what a fun 2014 season it’s going to be to watch, seeing what he does with all this talent.

Newcomers I can’t wait to watch in action are principal Mathilde Froustey, from Paris Opera Ballet, and soloist Simone Messmer, from American Ballet Theatre. The latter would appear to have a strong fan base, mourning that the ABT’s loss is the SFB’s big gain. Check out some of the buzz about Simone Messmer, along with a few media links, over at Ballet Alert. http://balletalert.invisionzone.com/index.php?/topic/37425-simone-messmer-abt-soloist-leaving-to-san-francisco/ (If you’re a dance peep and are not familiar with this site, get yourself right over there. A great source of information and discussion about dancers, companies, ballets, and the ballet world in general, frequented by interested, intelligent people in the know.)

As for Mathilde Froustey, oh wow, check out this rehearsal footage of her. I think she is going to be a very exciting addition to the SFB principal line-up.

In short, get thee ready, San Francisco Ballet patrons. We’re in for an exciting 2014 season, which will commence on Saturday, January 25 with Giselle. And that Nutcracker thing? Still ten days to go. Get thee over there, too.

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PS: Looking for more recent and/or specific dance reviews? You can find all those links HERE