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Review, 12-23: Land of the Cotton Candy
Stylish New SF Ballet "Nutcracker" Lacks Substantive Choreography
Copyright 2004 Aimee Tsao
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SAN FRANCISCO -- I suspect
that for most ballet critics the pre-Christmas diet of endless "Nutcracker"
performances leaves many jaded and longing for January to arrive.
I usually take a break, but this holiday season in the Bay Area
looked like it might actually offer a respite with two new Nutcrackers.
Right after Thanksgiving, Matthew Bourne's British-based New Adventures
company brought his original perspective on that old Tchaikovsky
chestnut to Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Of course, having been
created in 1992 and revised two years ago, this isn't a new production.
We just hadn't seen it here in this country. After seeing Bourne's
"The Car Man" I wasn't surprised when his "Nutcracker!" didn't really
grab me. Though the concept, sets and costumes were quite good,
there just wasn't enough choreography to fill an entire evening.
So I put my hopes on San Francisco Ballet's premiere of artistic
director Helgi Tomasson's latest reworking, the first major one
of the company's production in 18 years.
A brief pause while
I slap myself for once again ignoring my own rule about not having
expectations. It's not that I had great expectations, but what in
the dickens was I thinking when I kept hearing inside reports on
some of the difficulties SF Ballet's new Nutcracker was experiencing?
To balance those rumors, I had also heard that the costumes and
sets were absolutely gorgeous. I suppose I was giving everyone the
benefit of the doubt.
Opening night, Friday,
December 17 at the War Memorial Opera House has all the trappings
of a grand premiere. Characters from the ballet wander through the
lobby while many members of the audience, dressed to the nines,
nibble on snacks provided by various sponsors. The atmosphere is
truly festive, as befitting the holiday tradition of seeing "The
Nutcracker." It is also appropriate as it is the 60th anniversary
of San Francisco Ballet's first performance of it; in fact, on December
24, 1944, SFB was the first professional company to dance the entire
Tchaikovsky ballet in the United States.
Even before the show
begins I am treated to a glimpse of what is to come. The painted
stage curtain, in the style of a Victorian greeting card, welcomes
me as I take my seat. As the overture begins there is a brief slide
show of scenes of early San Francisco, then a zooming in on a storefront
that advertises "Drosselmeyer Fine Clocks," while the curtain rises
to reveal the interior of the shop with Drosselmeyer himself putting
the finishing touches on the Nutcracker he will give to Clara. The
rumors prove to be true -- the sets and costumes are exquisite.
The street in front
of the Stahlbaums' house is a row of San Franciscan Victorians and
the people are dressed in gowns and suits of the early 1900s. It
is quite gratifying to feel the action is taking place here in our
own city. One of the best touches is the grand staircase in the
living room, which allows for some sweeping entrances and exits,
and literally lifts the action so it can be clearly seen. The story
line in the First Act is pretty much the usual one, though as Clara
falls asleep and begins to dream, the mechanical dolls that performed
earlier make brief appearances as does brother Fritz with his drum,
before Drosselmeyer emerges through the floor in a swirling cloud
to take control of transforming the living room for the battle scene
with the mice. Here I begin to sense something is amiss. This battle
scene is the most sedate one I've ever seen. Yes, it has several
humorous touches: the Mouse King emerging from a hole where the
prompter's box would be, then being caught in a giant mousetrap
carried on by soldiers and finally crawling and disappearing head
first into his hole, with twitching legs lingering before vanishing.
But it definitely needs more action, chaos and energy to be rightfully
called a battle.
For the Land of Snow,
the glittering tree branches framing the stage even suggest the
shape of snowflakes. Again, the costumes are sumptuous but the look
of snow never gets to feel like a real snowstorm. The choreography
is rather staid instead of whirling madly and flying across the
stage driven by an icy wind. Even the variety of steps is severely
limited, unlike snowflakes, of which no two are alike.
Press packets being
an interesting source of information, at intermission I consult
mine to see what everyone (Tomasson for choreography, Michael Yeargan
for scenic design, Martin Pakledinaz for costume design and James
F. Ingalls for lighting design) claims as their inspiration for
their individual contributions to the production. The intentions
for the second act are honorable, but some of them just aren't quite
realized. Instead of the usual Kingdom of Sweets we have a Pavilion
of Dreams, a good concept illustrated by gracefully curving white
ironwork arches floating above the ground, echoing the architecture
of the Pan Pacific Exposition held in 1915 in San Francisco.
ladybugs and dragonflies flit across the stage. So why is the Sugar
Plum Fairy intruding in this idyllic garden? Only by using my opera
glasses from the 14th row can I see that her costume does have tiny
pink roses on the bodice. And even more puzzling, why is she dancing
the lead in the Waltz of the Flowers? Maybe she could be called
the Queen of Roses instead. The music for her variation is later
appropriated for the grand pas de deux between Clara (though danced
by a principal dancer) and the Nutcracker Prince. Musically, this
is total heresy as the culminating duet has its own internal structure,
which is broken by this interpolation.
The usual variations
have nice touches. The airiness of the set allows for additional
scenery or props to be brought in to give a taste of the different
countries. Spanish has a giant fan, Arabian uses a giant lamp to
conceal a seductive genie, a New Year's Lion follows the Chinese
dancer, the French Mirlitons twirl long ribbons, and the Russians
burst out of three enormous Faberge eggs. The steps themselves need
to be even more distinguishing. Variations in a ballet are like
arias in an opera: they should have movement motifs or phrases that
are readily identifiable or unique characterizations created by
gestures overlaying a solid structure.
It is rather distracting
to have the throne that Clara and Drosselmeyer sit on moved to a
new position on the stage before each variation, and particularly
so for the Waltz of the Flowers when it is upstage center. That
is not the only problem with this dance. The costumes are a bit
too pale and are all identical. A corps de ballet of only 16 dancers
barely makes a bouquet, and at least half of what they do is literally
walk and pose. With such lilting music, if I were on stage I would
take off and improvise; choreography, or lack thereof, be damned.
After placing a crown
on her head, the Sugar Plum Fairy grants Clara her wish to dance
with the Prince. She enters a large cupboard with mirrors inside
and emerges moments later, as another dancer in a classical tutu
for the aforementioned grand pas de deux. How confusing. A better
solution would be to have one dancer be Clara for the entire ballet.
After seeing this production a second time with Clara played by
Andrea McGinnis, I am even more convinced that this is the best
approach. On opening night I saw Caroline Hearst, a student from
the school in this role. She did a fine job for a student, but McGinnis,
an apprentice with the company, is a much stronger performer, both
technically and expressively, which gave more focus to the story.
The ballet concludes with Clara waking from her dream still curled
up on the sofa cuddling her Nutcracker.
Except for the sublime
Tina LeBlanc and gallant Gonzalo Garcia in the grand pas de deux,
Pascal Molat in Chinese, Guennadi Nedviguine in Russian and Jaime
Garcia Castilla as the Jack-in-the-Box, all in excellent form, the
opening night cast in general hadn't really gotten into their roles.
When I came back for a second look last night, the whole cast seemed
so much more relaxed and animated on stage.
Once again spectacle
takes precedence over substance in our market- and marketing-driven
culture. (See my 2003 review of Momix.) Recalling that some of Balanchine's
early masterpieces were first performed in practice clothes (because
there was no money for costumes) is testimony to the idea that choreography
should be able to stand on its own. For all the brilliant costuming
and scenic and lighting design, underneath there also should be
some substance, some solid choreographic ideas.
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