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Flash Review 1, 12-5: Velveteen
ODC's Holiday Alternative for Young Audiences

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000 Christine Chen

SAN FRANCISCO -- Last week I braved an audience full of red- and green-velvet-clad little girls when I reviewed American Repertory Ballet's "The Nutcracker." This week, back on the West Coast, I returned to the theater, this time Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, for more youthful Yuletide fare in ODC/San Francisco's "The Velveteen Rabbit." This time, children in the audience sported bunny-ear headbands and were armed with stuffed rabbits rather than Nutcracker dolls. The scene in the lobby was not unlike a carnival -- complete with long lines for face painting and balloon animals. The audience, composed almost exclusively of children and their parents, was abuzz, and I was reminded of Paul Ben-Itzak's New York City Ballet "Nutcracker" review where he maintained that Nutcracker productions are so important because they often represent the first exposure many children have to dance, as audience members and as performers. "Velveteen Rabbit," because of its popularity, accessibility and similar audience and cast demographic, presents another make-or-break situation for hooking potential dance audience members. ODC's slick production provides children and uninitiated adults with an admirable alternative to the ballet, and shows them that stories can be told through movement quality, phrasing, energy, weight, dynamics, acrobatics and athleticism as well as through the affected pantomime, illusory weightlessness, and precise structure and technique of ballet.

"The Velveteen Rabbit," though it has no inherent ties to the holiday season, has been a perennial December tradition of the Bay Area since 1986, when ODC produced its first workshop production of KT Nelson's choreographic vision. Based on Margery Williams's classic 1922 story, the dance is about a stuffed rabbit that becomes real through the love of a boy. Though it is billed as entertainment for the whole family, the content and form of the production is predominantly aimed at the pre-pubescent crowd. Older children and adults may feel insulted by the, at times, didactic and overstated tone of the pre-recorded voice-over narration, by Geoff Hoyle of the original "Lion King" cast. While the themes of love, loss, and renewal could potentially play to audiences of all ages, this production never offers older audience members additional layers of complexity or insight to enjoy beyond the face value of the story.

Highlights of the production come from performances by Yukie Fujimoto as the perky, sinewy Velveteen Rabbit, Brian Fisher as the boisterous, acrobatic boy, and the remarkably present cast of children who fill out the stage with their energy, commitment, and commendably coached dancing. Fujimoto is able to convey a multitude of emotions, through her articulate, confident and wonderfully phrased movement sensibilities -- quite a feat considering her pink padded full-body costume. Her bunny-eared mask adds a personality of its own as well -- the resilient floppy ears reverberate and echo the movement of Fujimoto's easily folding, flexible body. Fisher's virtuosic turn as "the boy" was most popular with the children in the audience who laughed as he dove, flipped, and bounded exuberantly around the stage. The diverse cast of children, including one disabled girl who performs in a wheelchair, has a notable sense of purpose and dances with a beautiful sense of weight and flow. The adult chorus seems alternately hot and cold despite their technical prowess. At times, they do not exude enough energy to command our attention, almost apologetic for their performances, and at other times, they seem a bit over the top, flashing their Vegas-revue style smiles and showing off for the audience rather than immersing themselves in the story and their roles. The two-person team portraying Nana (Jenifer Golden as the torso atop either Jeffrey Ruhser or Michael Cole as the legs hidden under the enormous hoop skirt), the nursery's maid, work surprisingly well together to create the illusion of one seamless being who periodically sweeps across the stage gesticulating.

The choreographic highlights include the rumple-tumble duets between Fujimoto and Fisher and solos for these two main characters. The chorus choreography contains some interesting and athletic partnering (including some fun moments where the adults partner with the children), but seems to stay at the same dynamic level throughout, never really ebbing or flowing despite the changing seasons in the story.

Probably the most problematic element in the production, however, is the soundtrack. The score, comprised of Benjamin Britten's early work, seems to stifle the energy of the dancing, providing neither support nor counterpoint to the movement. Whereas even bad productions of "The Nutcracker" can be saved by Tchaikovsky's soaring score (the overture literally moves most audiences), the performers in "The Velveteen Rabbit" have to continually work to gain the audience's attention in spite of the music. The opening overture, which resembles the subtle tinkling of a music box, lulled me into a catatonic state rather than surging me with excitement and anticipation. The recorded narration spells out the story in great detail, even though the action often speaks volumes by itself.

Still, the costumes are lively, and the simple, streamlined sets adequately fill the large stage space. The lighting design is stunningly rendered and augments the choreography and the mood of the storyline. Most importantly, the children seemed to enjoy the show -- a promising sign for the future of contemporary dance audiences.

"The Velveteen Rabbit" runs through December 10. For more information, please call 415-978-2787.

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