SF Ballet Gala 2018

Ballet Gala
January 18, 2018 SF Opera House

“Celestial”

It was a cold and rainy night, but the SF Ballet was glowing with its 2018 Gala!

All the events, except the opening and the finale were brilliant examples of “pas de deux” from a wide history of that unique ballet form. From the early 19th century “La Sylphide” to a premiere of “Letting Go”…from the “Bluebird” (excerpt from the season’s opening “The Sleeping Beauty,” to this. year’s “Children of Chaos,” the company’s leading dancers displayed their wide variety of skills in the many textures these works demand.

I was particularly delighted with Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in “Children of Chaos“, (music by John Kamel Farah, choreographer by Robert Binet). The work was premiered last year in Toronto, Canada. Chung is an exquisite lyrical dancer; Walsh is a major dancer and a great partner. The two created a magical movement quality, a unique dimension of contemporary ballet. I hope we can see the entire work on another program.

Sometimes, the oldest is also best. Maria Kochetkova and Ulrik Birkkjaer danced the 1936 Bournonville pas de deux for “La Sylphide,” probably one of the earliest fantasy ballets ever created. In those days Scotland was an exotic place for sylphs. We were able to see how ballet energy, style and range of movement has changed, comparing “La Sylphide” to the energetic, lively “Stars and Stripes” (Balanchine, Kay) of 20th Century dance. Kochetkova captured the magic of the sylph; Birkkjaer was drama of the infatuated Scotsman, while Ana Sophia Scheller and Vitor Luis tore through Balanchine’s 1958 work like soldiers on parade.

Sasha De Sola and Angelo Greco danced the 1899 Petipa “Le Corsaire,” and Yuan Yuan Tan and Caro Di Lanno performed the recent Liang/Richter work “Letting Go.” Again it was admirable to see and contrast the history of ballet style through the centuries.

Since this is a centenary of Jerome Robbins’ ballets, it was delightful to see “In the Night.” performed by six dancers, Mathilde Froustey, Benjamin Freemantle, Jennifer Stahl, Tiit Helmets, Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham. Roy Bogas, as usual, played the Chopin admirably. Although we remember the jazzy work of Robbins, in this ballet, he is at his lyrical best.

The program opened with “Little Waltz” danced by Students of the San Francisco Ballet School. It was a charming introduction to those future performers. The finale was Justin Peck’s “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” which we will see again later this season. The work uses the glorious talents of the men dancers of the company; Sofiane Sylve was the solo ballerina.

It was a triumph.

The “Celestial“ Gala evening brought the splendid audience much delight. It will be an exciting 2018 season with both historical memories and “Unbound” new works.

 

Maria Kochetkova and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Bournonville’s La Sylphide
Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham in Robbins’ In the Night

 

 

 

Joanna G. Harris

 

Mugwumpin

 “In Event of Moon Disaster”

Mugwumpin
Z Below: San Francisco
January 3-28, 2018
Science: Fiction and Fact

Mugwumpin’s production of “In Event of Moon Disaster” brings the audience and the players on stage with multiple video projections, space walks, characters both serious and fantastic, dancing, speaking and singing…to produce a ‘one of a kind’ event at Z Below. The event is the result of two years of development with work-in-progress showings at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland and Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco.

The program quotes a speech Richard Nixon would have given had the Apollo XI astronauts not returned to Earth in 1969. It is the “inspiration for the program.” It reads,
“For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.”

“In Event of Moon Disaster” takes us into the possibility of being lost in space.

The dialogue consists of talk between two astronauts in space, Stephanie DeMott and Soren Santos, and three other astronauts played by 14-year-old Nayeli Rodriguez alongside Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Don Wood, who are tracking the space explorers’ journey from Earth. All these performers are effective. Stuart is an amazing dancer/actor who holds the work together and provides the human poignancy. Rodriguez gives us the up-to-date facts; she was chastised for her desire to become a girl astronaut. Wood charmingly reminds us of life’s daily work efforts.

The script, devised collaboratively by the members of Mugwumpin, provokes the imagination on the level of scientific data, raising the issues of safety, terror and philosophy in space. The astronauts are lost, and their colleagues on Earth are concerned but helpless. They are curious and reflect their own condition on Earth and the consequences of any disaster, personal, private and in the universe.

All the players move on and about the stage space and eventually into the house while the audience moves also, around the set and finally onto the stage. The moon appears as a dancing woman with a giant round ball on her head. The other cast members are dressed in space suits. The narration goes back and forth between them all, repeating messages and lines, making us aware of the unique relationship we have to space and to each other.

It is all very enchanting, although sometimes the words go on too long and lose effectiveness. Yet the visuals, the performers’ commitment to the play and the direction by Natalie Greene is imaginative and unique. All the technical and production staff deserve special applause as do the talented and charming cast.

P.S If you like throwing ping pong balls, this is your chance!

Joanna G. Harris

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From left, Stephanie DeMott, Isa Musni and Soren Santos in Mugwumpin’s ‘Moon Disaster‘. Photo by Battista Remati

Lustig’s The Nutcracker, 2017

Graham Lustig’s, The Nutcracker
Oakland Ballet – Paramount Theater, Oakland

Nuts and Sweets

Graham Lustig’s “Nutcracker” keeps getting better and better. This year, besides the virtuoso performance of Ramona Kelley as Marie, Lustig cast Jacke McConnell both as Cousin Vera and as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Kelley and McConnell are beautifully skilled. Seyong Kim partnered Kelley; Thom Panto partnered McConnell. This made for the highly skilled execution of the many duets these dancers shared and for a delightful finale to the show.

More than 40 young dancers, ages 7 to 17 participate as snowballs, mice, soldiers and candies. The audience consists of many more children, parents, grandparents and fans of ballet who love seeing their kids onstage. Through the many scenes of the story, from the Stahlbaum’s ‘at home’ party where the naughty brother, Fritz, danced by Sanchit Babbar, breaks the Nutcracker, through the battle of the rats and toy soldiers, to the land of the frozen forest where snow maidens and snowballs appear, Lustig keeps the story moving. Dressed in saucy costumes by Zack Brown (who is also responsible for the magical sets), the dancers ultimately move to “Confiturembourg,” a land of sweets and surprises.

There Marie and the transformed Nutcracker (now a charming prince) meet all the cooks, bonbons and candies as well as dance divertissements from Spain, Arabia, China, Russia and Germany. They are also entertained by clowns, the tiniest played by Mackenzie Seto-Nguyen. And too, they join in the Waltz of the Flowers, a well-known Tchaikovsky favorite. It all moves along with great charm: the shallow Paramount stage can hardly contain them all.

Michael Morgan conducted the Oakland Symphony with good sound and only a few blunders. (I understand from a dancer that some moments of the score was omitted.) The Piedmont East Bay Children’s Concert Choir sang and a good time was had by all.

Credits go to Patty Ann Farrell, lighting, Christopher Dunn, wardrobe supervisor and Bat Abbit, ballet master and education coordinator.

In the seven years that Graham Lustig has led the Oakland Ballet, each of the company’s offering has grown in size, stature and execution. He and the growing company are to be congratulated on its success. In a planned Spring offering, March 10 at Skyline High School, the company will be joined by Nadhi Thekkek from Nava Dance Theater presenting Inidan dance forms and Indian ragas in Lustig’s “Jangala.” In late May, the Oakland Ballet has scheduled a Spring season. We expect will be more of the promise this company has shown.

Joanna G. Harris

Ramona Kelley and Seyong Kim float into the land of snowflakes and snowballs.

Mark Morris Dance Company: “The Hard Nut”

Mark Morris Dance Group
Cal Performances: UC Berkeley
December 15 – December 24, 2017

“The Hard Nut”

This Holiday favorite returns to Zellerbach Hall after a five year absence. It deserves a hearty welcome and will delight audiences young, old, and older. (There are five matinee scheduled.) Morris has transformed the familiar old Russian story, originally brought to America by Willam Christensen for the San Francisco Ballet (1944) and George Balanchine (1954), into a contemporary, joyous, satirical spectacle. As in the original, there is sentiment and magic, but also expert dancing including tough G.I. Joes, gender bending snowflakes and go-go boots. Morris himself is on stage: this time not as the Arabian dancer (as he did long ago) but as Dr. Stahlbaum/King, the head of a mad, contemporary family.

The story of “The Hard Nut” transforms the original E.T.A. Hoffman story wherein Clara (here named Marie, danced by Lauren Grant) visits the Land of Sweets, a magical kingdom populated by dolls and unique characters of all sorts. The Nutcracker, transformed into a prince, takes her there. Instead, Morris has Drosselmeier (the family’s uncle-magician, Billy Smith) tell Marie a story about a King and Queen who lost their baby girl to the Rat Queen, who deformed the child’s face. The child can only regain her beauty only after a young man cracks ‘the hard nut.’ Drosselmeier’s nephew (the transformed Nutcracker) accomplishes this. Marie and he become lovers. The naughty sister and brother are punished. Characters from around the world offer their native styles. Everyone dances.

In the course of all this, we are entertained by a variety of houseguests, wearing ‘now’ costumes, (by Martin Pakledinaz) behaving wildly exhibiting sassy 20th and 21th century ‘club’ movement. They are besieged by the family’s children, teenager Louise (Lesley Garrison) and naughty brother Fritz (Brian Lawson). If there is any order, it is kept by the Housekeeper/Nurse, adeptly played by Brandon Randolf in black toe shoes. During the course of many wild and wonderful set changes (Adrian Label, set design), we travel through dreams and storytelling to Act II. There’s lots to see.

All the dancing is expert, but in addition to the wonderful characterization of individual performers, the loudest applause goes to the snowflakes. Twenty-two members of the company, men and women, in white tutus, run, leap, hit the floor and continually throw snow on stage to the familiar waltz, hitting the accents with skilled leaps.

The Tchaikovsky’s score (The Nutcracker, Op. 71, 1891-92) is admirably played by the Berkeley Symphony under the direction of Colin Fowler. The Piedmont Easy Bay Children’s Choir Ensemble sang to accompany the snowflakes. It was delightful!

Other spectacular event include the various ‘native’ dances: Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian and French. Each was marked with satirical aspects as Morris find the characteristic foible in every nationality. The Russians, in outlandishly multi-colored costumes, stole the show with their energy, fast foot work and funny faces. Besides all that, Mrs. Stahlbaum, (John Heginbotham) now the Queen in Drosselmeir’s story, directs fourteen flowers in another of Morris’ spectacular waltzes. In someways this piece is even more outlandish than the ‘snow’ dance: the group weaves in and out of one another to satirize dances that are made this way and sometimes, they just lie down on the floor and exercise!

It is wonderful to have the Mark Morris Dance Company back in Berkeley. Over the years they have brought audiences skilled dancing, romantic adventures and over and over again, “The Hard Nut,” a spectacle for the Holidays that brings down the house.

Joanna G. Harris

Photo above: “Snow”
Danced by the Mark Morris Dance Group
Photo by Frank Wing
Courtesy of Cal Performance

Sara Bush Dance Project, “Homeward”

December 9,10, 16,17, 2017
Shawl Anderson Dance Center, Berkeley

“Homeward”

Sarah Bush has choreographed a charming event, full of nostalgia, humor and lively action to bring us a holiday event, “Homeward.” The evening consists of twenty or more episodes, danced by a company of women of several ages, that recall the dynamics, humor as well as the interactive troubles of home life.

Bush has transformed the various studios of the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center into visiting centers where one can meet the dancers before the main event. Then the major event is set with a sofa, a kitchen table, chairs … and even a mattress. These set pieces become the locus/focus of the many episodes enacting the nostalgia, conflicts, and comforts of ‘home.’ The dancers, Julie Crothers, Can Lazarus, Rose Huey, Sue Li Jue and Jeni Leary, change costumes often, taking on several roles within family dynamics. They exchange roles, places, tasks playing in turn, mother, father, siblings and outsiders.

An outstanding episode was that between Joan Lazarus (clearly the senior member) and Sue Li Jute. They sat at the table and used hand gestures to simulate a complex conversation. Lazarus also performed a suitcase event; others joined her. Clearly someone has to leave ‘home.’ Julie Crothers is clearly a lovely lyric dancer: she seemed to be the charming child. Rose Huey took many roles, some tough and aggressive. To the audience’s delight, Jeni Leary was joined by her young son Marley in a final duet. The next generation is clearly also at ‘home.’

Bush has accomplished a charming and thoughtful experience that is well crafted in the studio space of Shawl Anderson Dance Center. For this old fashioned reviewer, the vocabulary of lifting, falling, rolling and handling one another could be reduced and more extensive dance patterns used. Given the dramatic setting however, the vocabulary was most appropriate. The finale which Bush joined was delightful.

Credits: Linda Baumgardner, Lighting

Joanna G. Harris

Rose Huey, Joan Lazarus, Sue Li Jue, Julie Crothers
In “Homeward” Sarah Bush Dance Project

Photo: Lisa Harding

Camille A. Brown & Dancers

Cal Performances UC Berkeley
Friday, December 8, 2017

BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play (2015)

Set to musical memories beautifully played by Scott Patterson, piano and Robin Bramlett, electric bass, Camille A. Brown and her four dancers assembled an evening of works that recall childhood play and yet evoked complex adult confrontations. Brown’s program note reads: What are the dimensions of black-girl joy that cannot be boxed into a smile or grimace, but demonstrated in a head tilt, lip small, hand gesture and more?

In four sections, primarily set as duets, Brown demonstrates, through a marvelous mixture of game moves, tap dance, social dance style and gyrations of all sorts, that “play” evokes mood and memory.

Brown started the evening, solo, in shorts and sneakers, dancing phrases from Hop-scotch, footwork from double-dutch and a variety of random stretches and tap dance. She is joined by fellow dancer Catherine Foster and together they extend the vocabulary, both competitive and complimentary. Other duets are performed by Mayte Natalio, Beatrice Capote and Kendra “vie boheme” Dennard, whose interactions, on the many leveled set (by Elizabeth C. Nelson) evoke sometimes painful, sometimes joyful interactions. The final duet, with Brown and Dennard, demonstrates the need for care and comfort.

The dancing throughout is evocative and lively. Set against Nelson’s graffiti wall and recalling the sidewalk nursery rhymes and games, “Black Girl: linguistic Play” makes its marvelous impact in all our lives.

Credits include Burke Wilmore, lighting design, Sam Crawford, sound design and Shaune Johnson and Marshall Davis, tap coaches. Brown has brought to Cal Performances an important and delightful addition to the Radical series.

 

 

Photos: Courtesy Camille A. Brown