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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

A Lively Nutcracker

The Nutcracker
Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley
San Jose Center for the Performing Arts
December 12, 2003

By Alison Garcia
Copyright ©2003 by Alison Garcia

If you are living in the Bay Area and committing to only one Nutcracker this year, you could do far worse than Dennis Nahat's production for Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, which opened last Friday and runs through December 28. This version, first presented in Cleveland in 1979, is not as elaborate as some—there's no gigantic Christmas tree looming over the set—but plenty to see in the way of lively dancing, good storytelling, smooth choreography, and some impressively combative mice courtesy of the Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley School.

Some Nutcrackers stick to the traditional reading of the story as being for and about children, while others have experimented with telling it as an adolescent coming-of-age tale. This one splits the difference; the heroine, Maria Tannenbaum, is still a little girl, but one old enough to perform a romantic pas de deux with her Nutcracker prince, here transformed to Prince Alexis of Muscovy. On opening night, Maria Jacobs and Shingo Yoshimoto looked a little unsteady in the rather taxing pas de deux that closes the first act, but gained in security and confidence as the evening went on.

In addition to some tricky dancing, there's also the pleasure to be had from a story well told. Nahat, garbed as Drosselmeyer, came onstage before curtain rise to provide a précis of the plot about to unfold, and in the party scene narrative and comic points were made clearly, although it must be said that Nahat does not err on the side of subtlety. Everyone has his bit of business: a maid surreptitiously quaffing from half empty glasses, a little boy whose manic drumming can't maintain the beat, the dispute between the children that results in the decapitation of the Nutcracker. I didn't really think Drosselmeyer needed to flirt with the housekeeper (Roni Mahler), however. The girls, including Maria, are on pointe and do a graceful little number disrupted by the boys. The forces of the Mouse King (Willie Anderson) do battle here with a troop of grenadiers, with the latter getting much the worst of it until Maria intervenes with a handy cutlass. Anderson dies with all four legs wiggling in the air, as if from a king-size dose of D-Con, and there follows an amusing funeral procession, with the Mouse King in rigor mortis carried across the stage by some of his followers, heads and tails drooping in grief. The Waltz of the Snowflakes is set for a female ensemble in rather chunky white outfits who see Maria and Alexis off to "Muscovy."

In Act Two, the Land of Sweets is exchanged for world travel; Maria and Alexis make several stops en route to their destination. Their first port of call is Castile and the costumes recall the Spain of Philip IV, although the atmosphere is rather more cheery. A dance for two pairs of courtiers (Catharine Grow and Michael Doerner; Dalia Rawson and Hao Bo) follows, with the two principals joining in. Next follows the Land of the Shifting Sands, featuring harem girls and a large gentlemen with a hookah, and finally the Land of the Ivory Pagota, with the dancers waving red banners, and other bits of chinoiserie. The highlight of this act, however, is a ballroom dance to the Waltz of the Flowers that has real sweep. Sayaka Tai and Alex Lapshin, as the Tsarina and Tsar, danced the grand pas de deux. (I do question, however, the way royalty in this production is constantly joining in the dancing; should they really be part of the entertainment?) They were not a perfectly matched pair, but the balances and fish dives came off well. The evening ends with a sleeping Maria being toted up to bed (although there are hints that she may not have been dreaming, after all).

The leading role requires the dancer to present us with a little girl who can transform into a plausible leading lady; Maria Jacobs, with beautiful smile and neat footwork, filled both roles admirably. Yoshimoto was an energetic Prince Alexis, producing eight split jumps in succession that may not have been terribly musical but went over big with parents and kids alike, judging from the audience reaction. His boyish pleasure in the harem dancers was charming, and Beth Ann Namey, flanked by Jennifer Fitzgerald and Alexsandra Meijer, wiggled fetchingly around him.

Dwight Oltman conducted the Symphony Silicon Valley Orchestra; the effective costumes and scenery were by David Guthrie. As in previous years, carollers from local high schools sang in the lobby before the performance (this year they're from MountainView High and Lincoln High; I'm not sure which did the honors on Friday, but they were just fine). (Note: The Nutcracker is the first of three programs composing the 2003-2004 Children's Series Subscription; Coppélia, simplified for the younger set, follows in February.)

First:  Act I, scene 3 "A Curious Combat" from The Nutcracker. Photo by Robert Shomler.
Alex Lapshin (as the Zsar) and Sayaka Tai (as the Tsarina). Photo by Robert Shomler

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 13
December 15,, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Alison Garcia




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last updated on October 7, 2003