"Nutcracker" Makes Us Hunger for Classical Dancing

“The Nutcracker"
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, California
December 17, 2006, 7 PM
Dec 22, 2006, 2 PM

Ronn Guidi's "Nutcracker"
Paramount Theater,
Oakland, California
December 23, 2006 8 PM

by Paul Parish
copyright 2006, Paul Parish

Nutcracker season has certainly stimulated the appetite for ballet. It's been months, feels like years, since we've seen sustained classical dancing, and it's wonderful to think that the season begins in just a few weeks.

The big news from this past Nutcracker season was the fantastic attention that Tiit Helimets gave in presenting the ballerina, who is also his wife, in her first appearances in the Bay Area. Molly Smolen is a warm, human creature with exquisite, buttery feet, effortless extensions, and a lovely reserve in her manner that makes one want to see more.

To arrive onstage at the end of Helgi Tomasson's "Nutcracker" and look like you belong in this world is quite a challenge for most dancers I've seen do it — in Tomasson's version, Clara undergoes a transformation at that moment (via a magic-changing-room — don't ask), so the ballerina replaces the child-dancer. She steps into the role as she opens the door — and Molly Smolen succeeded in idealizing this transition better than anybody I've seen so far except Sarah van Patten. Once her cavalier stepped forward to offer his hand, she was utterly convincingly the heroine. Their harmony in the adagio was the flower of civilization.

Her solo variation did not go quite so well; it's not a perfectly coherent dance in terms of imagery — few are except for Ivanov's. That music does not call for any extensions over 45 degrees, it's all about polished crystalline soft but exact articulation, and it's a puffer: long, exacting, and quiet. During the course of it one noticed something heavy about Smolen's shoulders, a little sway in the standing hip, and feet that didn't flash into place quite fast enough in the sharp cuts to coupé that characterize her relevé turns. But so far I've only seen Tina leBlanc cut those facets exactly.

Helimets on the other hand is nearly everything one could want in a danseur noble; his bearing and temperament resemble Anthony Dowell's, as does his figure — his proportions are fantastic, with long cushy thighs, strong supple back, beautiful arms, small head far from the shoulders, and a radiant smile, and a technique that gives him all the control her needs without that over-muchness that makes a dancer too keen to be a cavalier. It would be fascinating to see him in roles that call for that extra keenness — but it is also wonderfully satisfying to see him take the stage without extra testosterone; he fills the space with classical calm and quiet and by himself can create the atmosphere of a fairy tale.

I had the same experience with SFB's Nutcracker this year as last — only after the show had been running for a week did the first act gain enough character to seem Christmassy at all. It's true that Willam Christensen's first act was corny — the sentimentality tugged at you annoyingly — but the new production goes too far in the opposite direction, whittling away the characterizations to almost nothing, and worst, ignoring the places where the music makes narrative points: when Tchaikovsky declares that more people are arriving (where Balanchine brings in the grandparents, and Christensen introduced the grown ups, rubbing their tummies as if to say, "well, that was a great meal, Mrs. Stahlbaum" and clearly entering the parlor from the dining room), there's just more milling about among everybody already there. In the two productions I saw, both Claras (Christina Perkins 12/15 and Hannah Foster 12/22m) were very fine, and in the second Quinn Wharton was extraordinarily fine at making a memorable person out of a party guest.

The grandparents dance with sweetness and character, and whenever the production gives a character a chance to do something characteristic, the dancers do what they can. Ashley Wheater is a very fine Drosselmeyer, and his mime scene is a beautifully detailed invention.

But the furniture outdoes the people — i.e., the logistics of moving all the effects into and out of place dominates, and it's a production in which dance interests bleach out everything else. Once it sets in for the run, character can be filtered back in — but it seems to go up before people everyone is really ready. That's doubtless because the SF Opera is in the building until very late in the season.

And things can still happen. Elizabeth Miner, who dances the Snow Queen with remarkable finesse and musicality, carving wonderful phrasing in her partnered work, slipped in a pile of snow on a grand pas de chat on 12/22 (at the height of the blizzard) and went sailing across the floor. She bounced right back up and tossed off her fouettés just fine, which is exactly the spirit one wants to see in a dancer.

That afternoon, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun as the Sugar Plum Fairy made wonderful grand gestures out of choreography that's a little sparse and made something out of a role that Tomasson has had to carve out of the waltz of the Flowers (since he's given her big music to Clara). Similarly Frances Chung a week earlier had overcome by sheer good nature and fearless dancing the difficulty of making an impression in this role.

At the earlier show, the highlights were Joseph Phillips in the Russian trepak (in Anatole Vilzak's thrilling choreography). The role is a show-stopper. And Muriel Maffre had been brilliant as the Snow Queen. Her phrasing was edgy, thrilling, even, and if there were moments where she just barely hit the mark on time, she never failed of it, and she more than made up for that by the amplitude and generosity of her grand poses. And besides, her nick-of-time dancing gave some bravura to an evening that had been pretty dull for those of us who'd already seen what the furniture can do in this production.

The level of technique, and of musicality also, is so high at SFB now that the second act is really a parade of delights. Nearly everyone could be singled out for praise: but I must mention Jaime Garcia Castillo, Dana Genshaft, and Benjamin Stewart in Spanish, Pauli Magierek as a supremely silly can-can dancer, Matthew Stewart as a dancing bear, and again, Joseph Phillips as the Chinese acrobat on 12/22.

In Oakland, where although the Oakland Ballet has officially died, Ronn Guidi's "Nutcracker" was brought back under his own direction and danced by former and current students and pick up artists from all over. The Paramount Theater was astonishingly full — I have never seen more people there for a ballet performance — and the dancing, though uneven, was not bad. Gianna Davy danced the Queen of the Snow from a calm, clear generous center all night, partnered by Samuel Potts, who's a modern dancer but has picked up enough classical technique to look very good indeed. Other performers who did valiantly were Joy Gim, Devon laRussa, Carlos Ventura, Mariko Takahashi and Kevin Atkinson (as the Rose couple).Tom Pracher made a remarkably spiky Drosselmeyer, a truly interesting characterization, and Denise Roman made quite a fine case for the Sugar Plum Fairy's choreography, generously partnered by Ben Barnhart.

Guidi's comeback is probably going to be like Dave Dravecki's: the community's behind it for sentimental reasons, but time is not on his side.

Just at Christmas came the sad news that my colleague Stephanie von Buchau had died. She was the Bay Area Reporter's splendid critic of opera and ballet.

Throughout her long career, Stephanie was a wonderful writer. She was more an opera critic than a dance critic, but within the range of dance that appealed to her, she wrote with wit and penetration. If it wasn't based on music, it didn't interest her, and she didn't go; Mark Morris, on the other hand, was a religious experience for her (her words). I think she agreed with Denby that in order to understand something you had to like it, and she kept silent about the kind of work that did not appeal to her.

She had a bracing style which made her fun to read no matter what she thought or was writing about: an 18th-century, opinionated style, with a lot of Jonathan Swift in it, and was capable of formidable contempt. Wit goes with that naturally, and she could make you laugh out loud. And when she loved something, and she wasn't stingy, she could really make you feel it, and she could account for why she felt that way.

The lady knew her stuff, and she wrote with such a sharp stylus, there was no misunderstanding her. I'm really going to miss her. I read her for fun and for company.

Photos, both by Erik Tomasson:
First, Tiit Helimets, here with Yuan Yuan Tan, in Tomasson's "Nutcracker."
Second: Brett Bauer, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun, and Moises Martin in Tomasson's "Nutcracker."

Volume 5, No. 1
January 2, 2006

copyright ©2006 Paul Parish

©2006 DanceView