SF Ballet's 'Nutcracker;' Mark Morris Dance Group

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday December 14, 2021
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San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's 'Nutcracker'
San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's 'Nutcracker'

It is a pleasure to report that a huge audience turned out and made it through COVID inspections for San Francisco Ballet's return to the 3000+-seat Opera House, and that the performance was one of the best within my 30 years of ballet-going. The dancers were eager to get back together, you could feel it, you could see it.

Thunderous applause greeted Helgi Tomasson, the Artistic Director, first thing as he stepped out, microphone in hand, to say, "We're Back!" with more emotion in his voice (he's famously reserved) than any in the audience could remember ever hearing before.

And they were ready. Nutcracker was cast to the hilt, with principal dancers and soloists even in minor roles — and from the children up, the acting was on a par with the dancing, especially when the role required both: the rag doll (Lonnie Weeks) sagged as if boneless, soft as cotton stuffing, even as he slid down into the splits, bounced up into cartwheels, whirled and collapsed again.

Even the children, especially our heroine (Abby Cannon), knew how to seem to be someone who belonged at this Christmas party in a house in the newly-rising Marina District (San Francisco just after the earthquake). They did their quadrilles and marches just fine, but they also responded with real delight to Clara's godfather, Drosselmeier (Tiit Helimets, outstanding in this key role), who intrigues them with magic tricks and brings the Nutcracker he gives to Clara, which makes her brother (Kai Hannigan), crazed with envy, fight her for it: he grabs it and breaks it.

This scene has for years been under-rehearsed, and wherever your eye would alight, someone would be "talking" to someone who wasn't really "listening." With all the prep time they had, it got cleaned up: suddenly the pictures were clear, engaging, and evoked memories in many of us of our own long-past holiday parties when we were young that fit with the nostalgia of Tchaikovsky's music (which the biographers attest, he wrote in a fit of homesickness that kept him on the edge of tears).

Helimets, who's normally cast as the prince, brings to the role the glamour and casual sophistication of a principal dancer; he is a cool uncle, a DILF, Mr Fabulous. Tomasson stole the idea from Mark Morris's 1991 Hard Nut, which had updated Nutcracker in sharp ways and been shown by Cal Performances in Berkeley a couple of times in the 1990s.

Helimets's spell can inflame the imagination — of the kids, and of the audience — and the phantasmagoric scene of Clara's after-party dream which follows as the night the day. All that testosterone that made her brother go ape disturbs her dreams and suddenly she starts to shrink, like Alice in Wonderland — or the furniture grows, the tree grows (fantastic music for this, bravo San Francisco Ballet orchestra!), the Nutcracker (sublime Joseph Walsh) becomes human-sized and comes to her aid when huge mice creep out of the woodwork.

Tin soldiers pour out of the breakfront, a Rat King (Alexander Reneff-Olson) climbs out of the prompter's box, battle ensues (and Tchaikovsky brings in a cannon). Just as the Rat King is about to kill the Nutcracker, Clara feints bravely, distracts him, and the Nutcracker runs him through.

And thence it's onward! through a blizzard: 600 pounds of white-paper snow fall from the skies, blown by wind machines in a whirling dance way up high as the King and Queen of the Snow (Yuan Yuan Tan, senior ballerina, our biggest star, whose name's a household word in her native China, ably partnered by Henry Sidford) dance among darting whirling, waltzing snowflakes, which brings the curtain down.

The presence of a gay uncle changed the way queers felt about the story completely. It was no longer, for me and many of us, a gift to queers that gave us a place in the family no longer was Nutcracker an oppressive source of Christmas anxiety. Perhaps the next production will incorporate our feelings about gender and ethnic stereotypes, especially the painful echoes of white supremacy that linger in this production despite the presence of people of color in the show.

Nikisha Fogo in Helgi Tomasson's 'Nutcracker'  (Source: © Erik Tomasson)

Plum role
Which brings us to our Sugar Plum Fairy, danced with wonderful ease by our new Black ballerina, Nikisha Fogo. The biggest news of opening night was her debut on the Opera House stage, and her entrance at the beginning of the second act —our first chance to see her live— was greeted with huge applause, which swelled up throughout the house as she bourréed out to take charge of her little angels (very tiny dancers, winged and bewigged and impeccably rehearsed), and to greet Clara and the Nutcracker Prince (Walsh) and present a feast, with dancing, in her honor. With two dancers for parents (Swedish mother, Jamaican father), she grew up on dancing; her first love was hip hop.

Ms Fogo has got it all. Long, powerful legs that can move crisply or voluptuously, with a great freedom in the upper body that makes her seem to float on the music naturally. And she can act. Indeed, as she "listened" to Walsh "tell" how they came here, the dangers they had passed, Clara's bravery in rescuing him from certain death, as Fogo took this in, she seemed to go through all the hopes and fears with them, without losing a whit of her majesty.

And then they danced; one brilliant divertissement after another, some with children, and an astounding Russian trepak for three whirling, stamping Cossacks which was kept from the old productions (Anatole Vilzak, who came from Russia after the Revolution and ended his days here) and still brings down the house.

Fogo's dramatic power was never greater than when she crowned Clara with a tiara and magically transformed her into an adult dancer in pointe shoes (the glorious Frances Chung, who floats as she turns), as the whole company gathered in the wings to watch her dance with her Nutcracker prince.
The show runs through Dec 30. www.sfballet.org

Mark Morris Dance Group in 'Dancing Honeymoon'  (Source: Christopher Duggan)

Morris? Si!
Across the Bay, Mark Morris performs this week with his dance group (in a singing role) at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. They're dancing a mixed bill of new and older works, all to live music.

Mark Morris is the most musical choreographer of our age; so bold, and so American in his boldness, that when he was young he could hold a house of 2000 spellbound watching a toy truck traverse a darkened stage to a trucking country song. He made it dance. And he followed that by dancing himself, long curls in tendrils, loosely draped in a housedress, in the manner of Isadora Duncan to a sad country balled by George Jones that has to be one of the greatest things I've ever seen

He's the heir of the hippies; his dances are trips. It is easy to imagine him listening to Monteverdi on headphones stoned, picturing dances like Looney Tunes. He's actually set a Handel oratorio —the nearest model for that is Disney's Fantasia. Forty years ago he worked from recordings— but he's so good at it, now he has opera companies coming to him, and actually directed the Ojai Music Festival.

The new work "Water," is a small piece set to Handel's very famous Water Music, scaled down to a chamber ensemble (played live). He's great with Handel. I can't wait. Two more short works, Jenn and Spencer set to a war between a piano and a violin by Henry Cowell, the gay composer who had to endure prison in San Quentin for being gay (He taught music to his fellow inmates).

Last on the show is his great ballet "V," set to a quintet by Robert Schumann. It's been years since I saw it last: the afterimage that remains is a macabre funeral march, dark but almost funny, with the dancers coming onstage like grasshoppers or locusts, in a kind of bear crawl. But the impact of what they did so clearly was out of all proportion to the means they used: my imagination was all aflame. It may not raise the same emotions this time; that's always a risk. Still, I can't wait to see it.

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