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Flash Review 1, 12-5:
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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