A complaint about the Natnl. Ballet of Canada’s “Nijinsky”

We saw this performed at the SF Opera House on Friday April 6th. The performance has been reviewed elsewhere, but as a mere member of the audience, I found that there was something very annoying about the evening. The ballet presents some parts of Nijinsky’s life and his fantasy rememberences of his performances. I just couldn’t tell what was going on! There were dancers representing his wife, sister, mother, father. Nowhere in the notes could they be bothered to indicate something like, “his sister, in a red dress” (or was that his wife in the red dress?). How am I to know. Giving me the name of the ballerina doesn’t help – I do not know the Canadian company, and even if it were the SF company, from where I sat I could hardly identify the person well enough to be sure who it was, to correlate with the program. Come on, is it ‘cheating’ to really tell us who is who?

A note on the ballet itself – it seemed strange that when various roles were being depicted, the music relentlessly stayed in Scheherzade. Didn’t quite go with the faune nor with “Le Spectre de la Rose”


Timon of Athens: Cutting Ball Theater

Cutting Ball Theater, San Francisco
Timon of Athens” by William Shakespeare
Directed by Rob Melrose
April 6-29,2018

Morality for our time

Melrose suggests in his program note, that with Timon, “we expire the collision of the wealth of the tech world and the poverty we see on the streets every day in the Tenderloin.” Shakespeare critics throughout the ages have found the play, though lacking in cohesion, still, of continuing interest. It is a work rarely performed, though.

I recommend a youtube visit to National Theatre Live, Simon Russel Beale, actor, visit to the British Museum and the trailer. That production, also set in contemporary times, has the great advantage of the National Theatre’s resources, but most important, the profound training that English Shakespearean actors have in the delivery of their lines.

The actors of Cutting Ball’s production do very well, but there are many, many lines. Even in the small theater’s space, some lines do not carry, nor do the clarity of words and their necessary enunciation. These skills take time. There is also, for this reviewer, a background sound score which does not add, but detracts from the general coherence. Nevertheless, Brennen Pickman-Thoon, as Timon, Courtney Walsh, as his servant Flavius, David Sinaiko as Apemantus and others, and Ed Berkeley, Alcibiades as others, bring to the play its great dramatic impact.

English historical drama boasts a period in the fifteenth and sixteenths century when “morality” plays were produced, “ plays about the human predicament,” “what it means to be human,” often represented on stage by a single dramatic figure. Such is the essence of Timon. As the historical critic states, “Man exists, therefore he falls, nevertheless he is saved.” Shakespeare, the ultimate poet/playwright, works this material to portray an overgenerous, proud man, betrayed and humiliated, who subsequently rejects the world. How and if he is saved will depend on your judgement. Ultimately he is true to himself, rejecting others.

The Cutting Ball production is set on three sides of an ingenious set by Michael Locher which serves as meeting place, banquet hall and Timon’s ultimate solitary retreat. This, and the free use of other house spaces makes for a lively ‘theater in the round.” There are both men and women actors, so except for Timon and Flavius, one must keep track of all the ‘others’ who fill parts as senators, guests, servants and dancing girls.

The production lasts over two hours, with one intermission, but the generous courtesy of the lobby hostesses will help you with refreshments in the break. Read it! Listen carefully. Think how it applies to our times and Enjoy!

Timon (Brennan Pickman-Thoon, center) laments the power of gold to corrupt all things while Phynia (Radhika Rao, left) and Timandra (María Ascensión Leigh) look on. Photo by Rob Melrose















Timon (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) gives a toast at one of his wild parties. Photo by Liz Olson















Joanna G. Harris

SF Ballet: Natl. Ballet of Canada – “Nijinsky”

San Francisco Ballet presents
The National Ballet of Canada
Nijinsky” A ballet by John Neumeier
April 3-8, 2018
San Francisco Opera House


Before you go to see the amazing production of “Nijinsky” at the SF Opera House, open your copy of Nijinsky’s biography, find your dance history book and look for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe. Then the kaleidoscope of Nijinsky’s roles and the characters that appear in Part One, a retrospect of the dancer, and ‘’Les Ballet Russe” will become clear. If not available, take time to read your souvenir program.

As a dancer Nijinsky appeared in Fokine’s ballets, “Petrushka”, “Le Spectre de la Rose,” and “Scheherzade.” Then, under Diaghilev, who, as the program notes, regarded Nijinsky as his “love-protege,” the dancer became a choreographer. He choreographed “L’Apre midi d’un faune,” “Jeux,” and then the shocking “Le Sacre du printemps,“ to Stravinsky’s “controversial score.” All this, Neumeier notes, implies that Nijinsky “broke new and original paths toward modern choreography.” But, as can be seen in the well dramatized opening sections of this production, the audiences were not pleased.

Neumeier sets the ballet in Nijinsky’s mind, has him imagining his various roles as well as the intrusion and humiliation the dancer suffered with Diaghilev’s love and estrangement. All this passes before the audience in a setting imagined at the Suvrette-House performance. We witness Nijinsky’s wife, his sister (the famous choreographer Bronislava), his brother, his mother and father, the ballerina Tamara Karsavina and the “new” dancer, Leonid Massine, who succeeded Nijinsky as Diaghlev’s lover and next choreographer for the Ballet Russe. Do your homework!

Nijinsky, as dancer is performed primarily by Guilliaume Coté, a brilliant dancer who is particularly moving in the second half of the program which is located in the mad house of his mind. All the events of his life, including World War !, death and infidelity haunt him. Coté is able to master a variety of gestures and acrobatic skills to portray madness. The company around him, taking many roles, provide a set of gorgeous montage chorus stagings. All soloists deliver great performances: Romala, Heather Ogden; Bronislava, Jenna Savella; Nijinsky’s brother, Dylan Tedaldi; Diaghilev, Evan McKie; Tmara Karsavina, Sonia Rodriguez; Massine, Skyler Campbell. Naomi Ebe takes various roles as alternative Nijinskys. He is outstanding as the Harlequin in “Carnaval.”

The company, soloists and corps, deserve great appreciation and applause for this amazing production. Neumeier’s vision and choreographic design for the piece is ingenious. The SF Ballet Orchestra, under conductor David Briskin handled the variety of musical selections with great skill. Do your homework and Go!

Guillaume Côté in “Nijinsky” National Ballet of Canada© Aleksandar Antonijevic

San Francisco Ballet: Robbins

San Francisco Ballet: SF. Opera House
Robbins: Ballet and Broadway
March 20-March 25, 2018

The several facets of Jerome Robbins

I spent an unusual day at the Opera House. In the afternoon the company was rehearsing the evening’s program with some of the same cast and some alternatives.

Subscribers to the Ballet receive invitations to attend dress rehearsals and even though it was a wet, cold Tuesday, the very enthusiastic audience was present in numbers. It was a special treat to watch the ballet performers take corrections and notes from the various ballet masters.

Robbins work is best known for “West Side Story” and the jazz style of the 40’s and 50’s he made famous. This program concluded with “Fancy Free” to music of Leonard Bernstein. It was the first work of their collaboration in 1944. Benjamin Freemantle, Esteban Hernandea and Lonnie Weeks were the lively, playful sailors: Dores Andre´, Sasha De Sola and Maggie Weirich were the captivating ladies. It was captivating!

More interesting as choreography was the 1976 “The Dreamer” danced with great technical aplomb by Carlo De Lanno. In the rehearsal, that part was danced by Wei Wang, who, in my estimation, gave the more dramatic interpretation. De Lonna’s principal partner was the very effective Sara Van Patten. For me, “The Dreamer” represents Robbins’ lonely self in the complex, female dominated ballet world. He is able to display, not the jazzy side of his later work, but the expressive modern dance which was this first training.

The Cage,” another contemporary work features dancers as spiders or similar predatory creatures. The novice (Maris Kochetkoiva) learns from the queen, Sofiane Sylve) the ritual and necessity of male destruction after the fertilization ritual. Again this may represent some aspects of Robbins’ unconscious. The men were Lonnie Weeks and Steven Morse, whose parts are minor but effective. A large group supports the act.

The most lyric and charming of the works is “Other dances” to various piano selections by Chopin. The piece was made for Baryshnikov and Makarova who are worth seeing on youtube. But here Frances Chung and Angelo Greco gave a fine lyric performance with many folkloric qualities to the mazurka. They are worthy of the inheritance. Natal’ya Feygine was the fine accompanying pianist.

The Robbins program at SF Ballet, both rehearsal and performances was one of the 2108 season’s highlights. We are all anticipating “Unbound” the events featuring 12 choreographers whose works will be new for SF Ballet. But Robbins in the last century, brought freshness, innovations and a new dance vocabulary in his time.

Joanna G. Harris

Frances Chung and Angelo Greco
In Robbins’ “Other Dances
Photo: Eric Tomasson

Oakland Ballet “Jangala”

Oakland Ballet Company
March 10,13,16, 17, 2018
Skyline HS, Oakland
(Other sites; Castro Valley HS, San Leandro HS)

Indian Dance: Bharatanatyam and the Oakland Ballet

Graham Lustig, Artistic Director of the Oakland Ballet, grew up in London and learned the Rudyard Kipling’s works, particularly “The Jungle Book.” With movement vocabulary from the south Indian classic dance form, bharatanatyam, Lustig has devised the story of Mowgli, a lost boy who survives in the wild. In this adaptation Mowgli’s life starts in the city, proceeds to the wild animal scenes (is there a difference?), and then, with encouragement and affection, returns to city life.

Jangala” was preceded on the program by the Nava Dance Theatre, a bharatanatyam dance compony based in San Francisco. The six dancers, led by Nadhi Thekkek, and six musicians gave us the story of “The Little Elephant in the Room.” It was a charming work, featuring a dance-conversation between two dancers, one convincing the other that that the elephants home (the forest) is worth saving. The rapport between the dancers and musicians was elegant. The dancers face, hand and footwork conveyed the many emotions registered in the story. Nava can be seen at the SF Ethnic Dance Festival. Their web site is www.navadance.org.

An alumnus of Ailey Dance, Sachit Babbar was the heroic Mowgli in Lustig’s “Jangala.” He is transformed from his city person to the wild child who is beset by the jungles animals, both cruel and kind. Eleven dancers from the Oakland Ballet Company, in splendid costumes, played all the roles. Baloo the Bear and Baghera the Panther (Calvin Thomas and Frankie Lee Peterson III) were particularly charming as those who rescue Mowgli from the power-hungry Tiger, Shere Khan (Tori Jahn). Eventually Mowgli prevails, having gained courage from his animal friends. A village woman, Messua, adopts Mogli and teaches him human ways, but he escapes back to the jungle with his wolf companions, Rasha (Samantha Bell), the mother wolf and her mate, Father Wolf (Christopher Dunn), who welcome him back since he has defeated Shere Kahn.

If you take children to the show, read “The Jungle Book” beforehand. Although the dance sections are clear and delightful, the story moves quickly and its more fun to know the characters and their animal selves. The production is marvelously costumed and scenic design is credited to Howard Siskiwitz, The extraordinary lighting is by JC Moore, ballet master is Bat Abbit and the Bharatanatyam Advisor is Renuka Srinvasan.

All the staff, cast and dancers and especially Graham Lustig are to congratulated for this extraordinary production. It is wonderful to know that Lustig, is including the Oakland community in his outreach and reaching that community where they live, in the various neighborhood high schools. This production however is work bringing to a larger audience at the Paramount or another venue so that many can enjoy it.

Joanna G. Harris

Sanchi Babbar, Mowgli, Nadhi Thekkek, Messua, In Oakland Ballet’s Jangala
Graham Lustig, Choreographer

Wayne McGregor "Autobiography"

Company Wayne McGregor
YBCA San Francisco
March 8-10, 2018

Contemporary Dance

The performance of Company Wayne McGregor’s “Autobiography” demands that we look at contemporary dance, its vocabulary, its technical and theatrical effects, its motivation and of course, its performances. The SF Bay Area is subject to these performances week after week, often to great applause and enthusiastic reception. What is happening on stage nowadays is often a mayhem of politics, techniques, intellectual presumptions (and pretensions) and, thank goodness, great skill in execution. All of this went into McGregor’s scientific sequencing of his own genome to make “Autobiography, “an abstract meditation on aspects of sex, life, writing, refracting both remembered pasts and speculative futures.” (program note)

What then is the dance? And what do we the audience see and know? As in many productions of this kind we learn about abstract, electronic music, about strange sometimes offensive lighting (such as when the lights shine directly into one’s eyes), and a sequence of “moves’ that combines some ballet, much locomotion, standing in place, and physical activities with another dancer that resemble “stunts and tumbling.” Contemporary dance, either through contact improvisation or the study of gymnastics, persists in devoting dance sequences to endless series of lifts, falls, rolls and general physical embrace and contact with one another. Rarely is there a dance phrase that develops without some suggestion that a partner is needed for such contact.

Of course there is no meaning intended in these activities…or is there? They are just movement phrases. Yet, for most people, when physical contact is made, the implication is that it is aggressive, manipulative or responsive to need or desire. Since there is little follow through on such contact, we viewers just assume that these actions are neutral as walking or jumping. Long ago (at least 25 years), choreographers seemed to have given up ‘meaning’ or ‘expression’ in dance. If they have not, why are their intentions not clear?

Bay Area choreographers specialize in political statements, personal stories and theater arrangements meant to delight and to amaze. These are often accompanied by lengthy verbal statements. Fortunately, McGregor’s intentions are all in the program notes. Other reviewers of “Autobiography” have noted that the 23 randomized sections have names such as “Nature, Nurture, Aging, Sleep.” For the YBCA program these sections were not named, just proceeded one after another through the “music” by Jin, the strange set design by Ben Cullen Williams, (one set looked like cruel cages), the intrusive lighting by Lucy Carter and the “androgynous” costumes by Actor Throup.

However the event Is saved if one can look beyond and through all the pretensions and watch the wonderful skill of the dancers. Their work, as in most performances, shines through and beyond intentions and decor. All ten of McGregor’s dancers are beautifully clear in their execution of postures, contacts and travel in space. I would wish for more continuity in the movement phrases so that one could follow a dancer through an extended movement statement; but that is not the style. In the darkened stage one event follows another so that the dancers too become part of a fragmented environment. Nevertheless praise is due to McGregor’s “Collaborators” (as he terms his dancers): Rebecca Bassett-Graham, Jordan James bridge, Travis Clausen-Knight, Louis McMiller, Daniela Neurgebauer, Jacob O’Connell, James Pett, Fukiko Takase, Po-Lin Tung and Jessica Wright. They well deserve the enthusiastic applause they earned.

Joanna G. Harris

James Pett and Fukiko Takase in Autobiography.















© Dave Morgan.