Awww, Nuts!

Contra Costa Ballet’s Story of the Nutcracker and Mark Foehringer Dance Proejct’s Nutcracker at Zeum
Friday, December 3, and Sunday, December 5, 2010
Countless kids get hooked on The Nutcracker the first time they see the Snow Queen bourrée onstage in a cascade of sparkles, and we—I mean, they—face dreadful withdrawal symptoms (lethargy, pique, bitter loss of illusion) if they don’t see The Nutcracker every year for the rest of their lives. But a full-length Nutcracker is a big commitment for a tot—sitting through that tedious grown-up party is a lot to ask before delivering the queen and her retinue.
That’s where little-kid-friendly productions come in: Ballet’s gateway drug, these hour-long introductions hit the highlights of plot, costume and music, whetting young appetites for the Nutcracker habit that’s sure to follow. And Contra Costa Ballet’s Story of the Nutcracker (at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek) and Mark Foehringer Dance Project’s Nutcracker at Zeum are just waiting to turn Bay Area children into happy Nutcracker heads.
Contra Costa Ballet's Story of the Nutcracker. Photo: Marty Sohl.

A twenty-year tradition, Story of the Nutcracker has introduced a generation of little ones to the holiday tale. Clocking in at one hour, with no intermission, this production honors the classical tradition with waltzing parents (mercifully shortening that pesky party to a few minutes), a full mouse battle, the international dances, the Waltz of the Flowers, and the grand pas de deux. The taped score is necessarily whittled down as well; musical transitions could be smoothed out here and there, but all of the famous passages are included.

Few, if any, families read E.T.A. Hoffman’s original story to children, so a guiding hand is a big help in identifying the characters and making Victorian culture relevant to today’s youngsters. Narrator Marlene Swendsen, herself dressed in period flair, ably leads children into the story (the narration doesn’t introduce the cultural dances, so parents may want to tell kids what they’re seeing) and wrapping it up at the end.

Most of the roles are danced by Contra Costa Ballet students, notably the talented and charismatic Alicia Wang as this year’s Clara. The school’s youth company performs the Ribbon Candy and Flowers ensembles, with the statuesque Kristen Isom in the plum role of the Rose. Superb local professionals play lead roles and cavaliers: this year, it’s John Segundo as King Mouse and Chinese Lion, Katarina Wester as the maid, Diablo Ballet’s Tina Kay Bohnstedt as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and from Company C Contemporary Ballet, Robert Dekkers as her graceful Cavalier, Taurean Green as Toy Soldier and Trepak, Edilsa Armendariz in a beautiful turn as Arabian Coffee, Kristen Lindsay as the Ribbon Candy lead, and Company C’s artistic director, Charles Anderson, as the mysterious Drosselmeier.

Across the Bay, Mark Foehringer Dance Project brought its Nutcracker at Zeum back for a sophomore run after a successful premiere in 2009. Fresh, colorful and inventive, this version gets a lot done with a cast of just 17 dancers, who manage miraculously quick costume changes in order to pull off multiple roles.

Nutcracker at Zeum. Photo: Rob Kunkle.

Condensing the story into a fast-moving 50 minutes, Nutcracker at Zeum makes a few tweaks for the sake of silliness and celerity: Mother Ginger and her rambunctious Kinder bring Drosselmeyer a gingerbread house; when the Mouse Queen sneaks in and nibbles on it, the annoyed toy maker and his nephew ship her off to Siberia. Naturally, the Mouse King comes looking for the missus, and the ensuing chaos sweeps up everyone from little girls with cupcakes on their heads to Clara in her pretty pink dress and Chinese Tea in a rainbow unitard.

The small stage at Zeum, a popular children’s museum near the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, demands inventive staging, and Foehringer uses every inch of the house, including the aisles, to his advantage. Fortunately, the space is large enough to include the eight-piece Magik*Magik Orchestra, playing Tchaikovsky’s score as orchestrated by Oakland East Bay Symphony music director Michael Morgan. As energetic as the performance, the live music enriches the show—and kids’ theatrical education—immensely.

A superb cast lays a foundation of fine dancing beneath the lighthearted fun. Brian Fisher, Chad Dawson, LizAnne Roman, Taylor Ullery, Juan de la Rosa, Jetta Martin and Jaclyn Stryker play the major characters (and some of the minor ones); as a group, they’ve danced for some of the world’s best ballet and contemporary companies, and it’s easy to see why. Young dancer Thomas Woodman plays supporting roles, and two casts of kids charm alternate as sweets and soldiers. This is just the beginning for Nutcracker at Zeum, so we may well see them in the grown-up roles someday.

Story of the Nutcracker runs for one weekend
each year; look for tickets in autumn 2011.
Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
LesherArtsCenter.org or ContraCostaBallet.org

Foehringer Dance Project’s Nutcracker at Zeum
continues through December 19:
Saturdays 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and Sundays 11 a.m., 2 p.m.
Zeum, 221 Fourth Street (@ Howard), San Francisco
$25  BrownPaperTickets.com or mfdpsf.org

© 2010 Claudia Bauer/SpeakingOfDance.com

Smuin Ballet’s “The Christmas Ballet”

Friday, November 26, 2010 at the Lesher Center for the Performing Arts, Walnut Creek 

In just about every family, the senior generation passes holiday traditions on to the younger folk, who update here and there to keep the dusty old rituals relevant. The Smuin Ballet family is no exception: In 1995, Michael Smuin created the popular The Christmas Ballet, with its signature mix of classical ballet, jazz and cabaret numbers, and each year the company refreshes the show with a couple of new pieces. The result is consistently joyous, elegant and inviting—though perhaps it’s time for the kids to shake the holiday tree a bit more than usual.

A packed house welcomed The Christmas Ballet to the Lesher Center for its season launch on Friday night. The show began as a holiday show should: With the first strains of the Magnificat, the women doffed their colorful capes, and one immediately felt the comfort that traditions bring and the sense that all would be right with the world, if only for the next two hours.

Act I: Classic Christmas. Photo: Scot Goodman.

Act I: The Classical Christmas, consists of 16 pieces danced to masses, carols and classical instrumentals that will be familiar to Christmas Ballet fans—Mozart’s Domine, the French carol Noël nouvelet, “Sleigh Ride” and “Deck the Halls.” New to the mix is “Carol of the Bells,” a world premiere from Smuin choreographer in residence Amy Seiwert. Jane Rehm and Travis Walker were up to the piece’s fleet footwork, with the company serving as a corps of graceful snowflakes behind their pas de deux. Ably and happily performed in the customary all-white costumes and backdrop of gathered white drapery, this year’s Classical Christmas sets a warm and spirited mood.

The ever-irreverent Act II: The Cool Christmas, rang in with 17 more numbers—all performed in red costumes with red framing around the stage—including favorites like Ryan Camou’s soulful solo “Drummer Boy”; the amusing “Blue Christmas,” in which dancer “groupies” fawn over a hip-swinging Matthew Linzer as Elvis; and “Santa Baby,” danced with sultry élan by Robin Cornwell. Erin Yarbrough-Stewart and Jonathan Powell exuded palpable chemistry in their enchanting “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” while Shannon Hurlburt earned the loudest applause of the evening for his self-choreographed solo “Bells of Dublin,” an athletic Irish tap number danced to the Chieftains song. Smuin ballet mistress Amy London created “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” for the 2010 show, adding much-needed asymmetry and energy, although the ensemble becomes a bit chaotic during a sequence that includes rhythmic-gymnastic ribbons trailing after the dancers.

Act II: Cool Christmas. Matthew Linzer as Elvis. Photo: David Allen.

In fact, more asymmetry would do The Christmas Ballet a world of good. Classical’s all-white look and Cool’s all-red (the one exception is the pink prom dress in Seiwert’s delightful “Please Come Home for Christmas”) are here to stay, so varying the choreography is the only way to keep the show full of surprises. To that end, editing each half down a bit and revisiting some of the old choreography would help enliven the pacing.

For example, in the first act, “The Gloucestershire Wassail” is a sweet step dance that demonstrates strength, coordination and speed. But it pales in comparison to the all-out energy of Hurlburt’s “Bells of Dublin,” so perhaps the company could choose one or the other? Some of the Act I pieces overlap in mood and movement; overall, trimming two or three dances from the Classical Christmas would allow each piece to get fuller attention from the audience.

Susan Roemer (left) in Seiwert's "Please Come Home for Christmas." Photo: David Allen.

In Act II, “Christmas in New Orleans” and “Cajun Christmas” are both energetic, location-themed ensemble pieces, and they could appear in alternating years. And in “Sugar Rum Cherry,” a row of women dance a Fosse-style burlesque with chairs, doing the same steps in tandem—why not reamp the vamping with some variations in timing?

Audiences love The Christmas Ballet exactly as it is. They would also be delighted by some exciting updates: At the end of the evening, the whole company comes onstage to dance freestyle, showing off leaps and pirouettes while tossing handfuls of snow into the air. It’s one of the most fun parts of the show and, other than the roaring applause for the “Bells of Dublin,” it garnered the biggest cheers. One wishes for more of that energy, enthusiasm and freshness throughout the whole program, to ensure a tradition that grows ever stronger.

The other fine Smuin dancers performing that night were Darren Anderson, Terez Dean, John Speed Orr, Jane Rehm, Susan Romer, Jean Michelle Sayeg, Erica Shipp, Shane Tice, Jessica Touchet and Travis Walker.

The Christmas Ballet continues:
♦ Dec. 3-4 at Sunset Center in Carmel. Tickets: 831-620-2048
♦ Dec. 8-12 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
in Mountain View. Tickets: 650-903-6000
♦ Dec. 15-24 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
in San Francisco. Tickets: 415-978-2787
SmuinBallet.org

© 2010 Claudia Bauer/SpeakingOfDance.com