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Flash Review 1, 1-3:
S.F. Ballet's Snow Job
Even Zahorian's Daring Snow Queen Can't Save this Cracked 'Nut'
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
SAN FRANCISCO -- One
of the unexpected gifts of a trip home for the holidays is that
a childhood memory may be recovered that explains everything. "Aha!"
you exclaim, "THAT's why I'm always hungry!" Well, my holiday excavation
to my City by the Bay did, in fact, produce an explanation for the
bottomless pit that is my pancreas. I can't say more than that about
that particular epiphany without incriminating the innocent or inundating
you with TMI (too much information). However, my trip to the War
Memorial Opera House, where San Francisco Ballet this season trotted
out a "Nutcracker" production parts of which are nearly as old as
that septuagenarian theater, did illuminate for me why the San Francisco
flower child that was me didn't fall in love with dance soon enough
to try his feet at it. And this epiphany I will explain, as the
only ones incriminated are the guilty -- those guilty of bilking
parents, selling kids short, and utterly wasting a substantial portion
of some of the most beautiful music in the ballet world, not to
mention squandering a great deal of holiday good will.
I was thirty years old
when I fell in love with ballet, after seeing, first, Tina LeBlanc
in the Joffrey Ballet's production of John Cranko's "Romeo & Juliet,"
as well as the Joffrey's revival of Nijinsky's "Rite of Spring";
and, second, Evelyn Cisneros in, on back-to-back nights, "Swan Lake"
and Redha's "Pavane Rouge," both on San Francisco Ballet. In subsequent
years the only regret with which this newfound love was tinged was
that I had not discovered it earlier -- about twenty years earlier,
when I was ten and, theoretically at least, could have tried out
for the San Francisco Ballet School and, who knows, been a contendah
instead of just a wannabe critic on the sidelines.
However, to take this
step, I would have needed some spur to my interest -- say, a moving
experience at the ballet for ten-year-old me that made me want to
get up there and join the party. But that was 1971, when I was ten,
and it was also when San Francisco Ballet was at the end of a somewhat
fallow, post-Nancy Johnson, pre-Michael Smuin, Evelyn Cisneros,
Helgi Tomasson period. My parents did, in fact, take me to the ballet
at some point in the sixties or early seventies -- in fact, to see
this same production! (I.e., the one originally choreographed by
Lew Christensen in 1944, with additional choreography added by brother
Willam; Tomasson would add staging in 1986.) All I can remember
is not understanding a thing about the plot, and being especially
confused as to why man-sized mice were fighting wooden soldiers.
Strangely, I had no memory
of the entire first act -- you know, the one where, theoretically,
the children are front and center. I do remember that when I first
saw George Balanchine's version, in 1995 on City Ballet, I was delighted
that he actually gave the children complex choreographic patterns
to execute. As a sometimes children's drama teacher, I was aware
that kids can do more than just stand on stage and be cute. Well,
on December 22 at the War Memorial, I simultaneously realized why
Balanchine's "Nutcracker" so impressed me, and recovered my memory
of why the childhood me had seen nothing in S.F. Ballet's "Nutcracker"
to hook him and make him want to enlist. At least as far as the
children in the first act are concerned, this "Nutcracker" has no
What we're talking here
is kids (or pre-teens) basically standing on stage looking cute,
with the most intricate movement consisting of stereotypical play-acting
and simplistic circles, and the most bravura phrases calling on
them to wave their stuffed animals in the air. In Balanchine's "Nutcracker,"
when Herr Drosselmeier unveils the toy soldier, the children, aligned
on either side of him, react to the soldier's salvoes, falling down
and kicking their legs up. In SFB's, they just watch. Also in Balanchine's,
the magical tone for the entire evening is set when a scrim rises,
all the lights except those decorating the Christmas are dimmed,
and the children, raising their arms in the air as if in a trance,
pay homage to the tree as if it were the god of Christmas.
Did I say tree? In SFB's
tired production, this tree has got to be the tiredest element.
It looks fake. When it rises out of the ground -- the part where
the tree grows larger and larger, setting in motion the fantastic
events to follow -- this evergreen wobbles precariously on its strings,
which are clearly visible.
Did I say fantastic?
Ah, there's the rub. One, if not THE, enabling element of the end
of the first and of the entire second act -- i.e., that makes it
all seem plausible, even for adults - is the possibility that this
could all be a dream. It's not just that Clara (Marie in Balanchine's
version) falls asleep before her world is rocked and enlarged and
she is transported to the Land of the Sweets. It's also that, in
classic dream fashion, Drosselmeier's actions, post her falling
asleep, are suggested by seemingly inconsequential images in the
first act. For example, in Balanchine's "Nutcracker," the image
of the mad Drosselmeier straddling the grandfather clock is suggested
by an earlier moment where he points out the discrepancy between
the time it's showing, and that on his own watch.
In Balanchine's version,
the possibility is left open that all this could be a dream, imagined
by the highly suggestible child. However, in SFB's production, at
the end of the party scene, before this dream sets in, Jim Sohm's
Drosselmeyer, before exiting, very obviously, in full view of the
very obviously puzzled parents, rubs his hands together as if to
say, "Now, my Pretty, all is set for my diabolical plan!" Ya ha
While I wouldn't go so
far as to call the Christensens' choreography for the Land of the
Sweets diabolical, it is decidedly dreary. They and Tomasson have
somehow managed the feat of evading the musicality of one of the
most obviously musical scores in the ballet canon! Only in the most
general sense does the choreography have any relation to Tchaikovsky's
magnificent, opulent, sumptuous score.
Fortunately, on the evening
this "Nutcracker" caught me, a cavalry of sorts did arrive in the
second act, in the persons of Julie Diana, Vanessa Zahorian, Leslie
Young, and a spirited corps of snowflakes.
Let's start with the
Snowflakes and, to be fair, lets bring in a comparison again to
City Ballet. In this case, I'm happy to report that, unlike most
of the Snowflakes that didn't catch me November 29 at the New York
State Theater, these Snowflakes seemed generally happy to be there.
Of course, this should be the norm, but it wasn't at the State,
where the Snowflakes seemed almost pained to have to be up on stage
- another day at the office.
And then I saw something
truly abnormal -- in a good way, I mean! Zahorian, the latest talk
of the town among the SFB women, displayed uncanny precariousness
-- in a good way! -- as the Queen of the Snow, dancing with Gonzalo
Garcia's capable King. What makes ballet live is not when the positions
are executed with perfection, but with daring. Zahorian impressed
in two achievements here: First, she waited until the last possible
moment -- when it seemed she might fall, so steep was her angle
-- to come off pointe. This is what I like to call good teetering
-- teetering that comes not from unconfidence, but from the ballerina's
utter confidence that she can right herself at the last moment.
This, however, while rare, was something I'd seen before. What I'd
never seen, however, was the way Zahorian teetered -- good teetering
-- as Garcia held her in her pirouettes. Imagine a hand-held, old-fashioned
dreidel that spins, that even veers wildly from side to side, that
appears ready to topple off its point at any second -- but that
never does, until it's good and ready. Let's call this good imbalance,
or finding balance in what for anyone else would be an unbalanced
While not quite so startling,
Julie Diana, as Sugar Plum, was definitely sunny - good sunny, and
more naturally sunny than Miranda Weese's plastic-y (bad plastic-y)
Sugar Plum in the City Ballet performance I caught. Unlike Weese,
who appeared to be dancing by rote, stingily not fully realizing
the inherent joy in the music, and indeed of just being on stage,
Diana, even working with this very old, endlessly played score,
seemed to be discovering anew, with generous and genuine relish,
each strain of the music. I loved the way that she entered into
it, and into its spirit.
Regal, as always, was
Leslie Young, as Butterfly.
And just now, I seem
to be recovering another memory. As someone who has coasted from
coast to coast for the past nigh-on twenty years, I've often wished
I could build a life with the best aspects of both: Say, the stimulation
of New York with the weather of San Francisco (60 degrees in the
shade during some days of my visit; the barometer dipping to 50
was cause for my stepmother exclaiming, "It's really cold today!"
Seeing these two Nutcrackers,
coast-to-coast, I find myself making this impossible wish: for a
George Balanchine "Nutcracker," with San Francisco Ballet dancers.
(Oh, all right, Monique Meunier and Wendy Whelan can stay!) And
one more wish: That my hometown will get a new "Nutcracker" by next
year, with actually choreography for the kids, so that a future
10-year-old PBI in the audience might be entranced enough to actually
want to try to become a ballet dancer, and so that the parents of
those San Francisco Ballet School children in this production might
get a chance not just to see their kids on stage, but see what their
kids can do on stage. One touch SFB has added in recent years is
snow-like bubbles which, I kid you not, float down on the pre-show
crowd in front of the opera house. As it is, that's exactly what
these parents are getting: a snow job.
(For more on New York
City Ballet's "Nutcracker," see Tara
Zahra's review of today, and my
review of this year's opening night performance.)
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