The Gift of Grace: Bay Area Holiday Dance (2015 edition)

Leigh Donlan reports from the wilds of Sonoma, CA:

Dustin James in Smuin Ballet's THE CHRISTMAS BALLET (Photo: Lois Greenfield)

Dustin James in Smuin Ballet’s THE CHRISTMAS BALLET (Photo: Lois Greenfield)

Years ago, while Christmas shopping in Washington, D.C., I stumbled upon the book Gravity and Grace, by French philosopher-mystic-activist Simone Weil. Her powerful words provided a needed shelter for me at that time, and I turn to them again in a year fraught with turmoil and tragedy, locally and abroad, from the Northern California fires to the Paris attacks.

Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.

Grace is the epitome of ballet, elusive and ethereal, impossible to capture but for a fleeting moment. Yet it remains our goal, and compels dancers to work harder for it. It was grace that attracted me to ballet. As I evolved as a dancer, and matured as a person, my ideas of grace changed dramatically. I found grace in howling, grace in tears, grace in silence, grace in rage.

2015 was a profoundly challenging year for many.

On the day after the latest attacks in Paris, Stéphane Lissner, the director of the Paris Opera made a point of noting that this was the first time that a live performance had been a terrorist target. “Culture must remain standing,” he insisted. Laurent Bayle, president of the Paris Philharmonic, echoed the sentiment:

Attacking a place of culture is to attack a place of shared ritual

Weil’s paradox of grace is at the heart of why we dance, and why watching live dance – sharing the ritual – can be so moving, even healing.

Ballet to the People’s other half spent much of her time in the Far Eastern regions of the world this year, while I explored the value of a hard-earned dollar, so there were some lengthy silences at the shop. But here we are, the New Year practically upon us: we attempt to slide into it with gratitude and grace. And there really is so much to be grateful for, when we think about it. So we ask you, dear readers, to consider your own gratitude list – maybe even just for today. That warm cup of tea. The morning light. A smile from a stranger. Nailing a pirouette combination in ballet class.

Seek out those “places of shared ritual,” in search of grace. Of the many wonderful offerings sprinkled around our vibrant Bay Area dance communities this season, here are a handful we particularly love. Even stalwart Bay Area icons, like San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker and Dance-Along Nutcracker, feature new twists and exciting new dancer debuts. Don’t be left out.

Graham Lustig's NUTCRACKER for Oakland Ballet (Photo: David DeSilva)

Steph Salts as Marie, and Connolly Strombeck as the Nutcracker Prince, in Oakland Ballet Company’s production of Graham Lustig’s THE NUTCRACKER (Photo: David DeSilva)

Oakland Ballet’s The Nutcracker – Paramount Theatre, Oakland

Don’t be cynical about the Nutcracker. It is a portal through which many people discover dance. It can serve as the key to appreciating the art form.

Graham Lustig, the Artistic Director of Oakland Ballet since 2010, is reminding me of why companies work so hard on this production every holiday season. “It is my own yearly joy. This is the gift that we – the entire crew, the dancers, the orchestra, the choir – give our community every year.”

Graham fills his production with unusual and thoughtful touches, including a set design steeped in Viennese influences, and vibrant inclusion of the human voice. Voices of the Mount Eden High School Women’s Choir fill the legendary Snow Scene.

The choir likes to wander about backstage and carol outside the dressing rooms. It’s quite lovely.

The esteemed Oakland Symphony delivers the powerful score live – a luxury that is rapidly disappearing in many ballet productions around the country.

Set in the post-Victorian era, when bodices are loosening, our protagonist Clara is a free-thinking young woman, learning to take charge of her life.

The show runs for two days only, December 19 and 20, at the historic Paramount Theatre. Children are invited to meet the Sugarplum Fairy and other characters after Saturday’s matinee. Click here for details.

Smuin Ballet makes artful snow fall on San Francisco in THE CHRISTMAS BALLET (Photo: Scot Goodman)

Smuin Ballet makes artful snow fall on San Francisco in THE CHRISTMAS BALLET (Photo: Scot Goodman)

Smuin Ballet’s The Christmas Ballet – Walnut Creek, Carmel, Mountain View, San Francisco

For over 20 years, Smuin Ballet has resisted the Nutcracker tradition, every year refashioning its own brand of holiday cheer within a delightful framework of contrasts divided into two acts: ‘The Classical Christmas,’ with the dancers all clad in white, and ‘The Cool Christmas,’ a more rambunctious affair in fire-engine red.

Smuin Ballet's THE CHRISTMAS BALLET (Photo: David Allen)

Smuin Ballet’s THE CHRISTMAS BALLET (Photo: David Allen)

Smuin Choreographer-In-Residence, Amy Seiwert, will premiere a new work in Act II, “Home for the Holidays.” “My sister and I sing this Perry Como song very loudly during the holidays,” Seiwert muses. “And the new work is something silly. It was hard for me, as I’m not used to being silly. Michael (Smuin) used to call my work weird, in a very endearing way.”

Speaking further on Smuin’s legacy, she noted:

Michael’s work was very accessible. He was a showman. He was one of the first dancers ever to do the crossover thing. As an ABT dancer, he performed on the Ed Sullivan show in 1966!

Seiwert first danced with Smuin Ballet over twenty years ago, closely mentored by Smuin. Her choreographic talents have since taken center-stage. She has been commissioned by many national ballet companies and runs her own acclaimed dance troupe, Amy Seiwert Imagery. When I ask Seiwert about the outlook for female choreographers – who are few and far between in the ballet world – she remains optimistic yet realistic.

I can’t even imagine receiving a major commission from the top ballet companies. That’s just not how (the industry) works right now. But I’d like to think that whatever I’m doing now, as a female choreographer, will help future female choreographers. Otherwise, we are all losing out on some very creative voices.

Smuin Ballet will perform The Christmas Ballet throughout the East and South Bays, wrapping up at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Click here for details.

It's snowing in Silicon Valley, too! Annali Rose, Shannon Bynum, Beth Ann Namey and Nicole Larson of Silicon Valley Ballet (formerly Ballet San Jose) in Karen Gabay's THE NUTCRACKER (Photo: Quinn Wharton)

It’s snowing in Silicon Valley, too! Annali Rose, Shannon Bynum, Beth Ann Namey and Nicole Larson of Silicon Valley Ballet (formerly Ballet San Jose) in Karen Gabay’s THE NUTCRACKER (Photo: Quinn Wharton)

Silicon Valley Ballet’s The Nutcracker – San Jose Center for the Performing Arts 

Silicon Valley Ballet, formerly Ballet San Jose, will be presenting Karen Gabay’s The Nutcracker at San Jose Center for the Performing Arts for three weeks in December. Gabay has been a steady presence within the company and has seen it through its many reincarnations. I asked Gabay what the biggest difference is now that Ballet San Jose has become Silicon Valley Ballet. 

“It was essentially a choreographer’s company. Now repertoire is brought in. It’s a totally different company now.” Gabay herself danced with the former BSJ until 2013, when she retired from the stage and took on a guiding role as Artistic Associate. Choreographing the entirety of SVB’s Nutcracker, she has also created works for numerous national ballet companies including her own company, Point of Departure, which performs annually in Cleveland, Ohio – BSJ’s original home town.

Silicon Valley Ballet, like most ballet companies, has faced many challenges in the turbulent economic landscape. I ask Gabay if the audience has changed, given the financial ups and downs of Silicon Valley. She replied:

I don’t see younger generations (20’s to 30’s) coming to performances as much. These generations now have entertainment at their fingertips, with YouTube and other social media. Unless people are exposed to the performing arts early on, it’s a challenge to maintain their interest in them.

And what is lost with this loss of interest?

The cultural, communal experience of an event, the sense of connectivity. When we sit and experience a performance with our peers, we are a part of it.

Gabay’s Nutcracker is a version told more from the young girl Marie’s perspective, with elegant costumes and garden sets. A correspondingly elegant Nutcracker Tea Service, offered in collaboration with the Fairmont Hotel, further aims to lift holiday spirits. Click here for details. 

San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band reinvents DANCE-ALONG NUTCRACKER every year  (Photo: Billy Green)

San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band reinvents DANCE-ALONG NUTCRACKER every year (Photo: Billy Green)

San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band’s Dance-Along Nutcracker – Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco

The priceless Dance-Along Nutcracker is a uniquely San Francisco holiday experience. With annual themes, it is never the same ol’ same ol’. Artistic Director Pete Nowlen tells me:

It is just so iconically San Francisco. Quirky and full of personality, welcoming of diverse people and dance “styles”, and a fantastic opportunity for dress up – and for people-watching! 

This year’s theme is the ‘Nutcracker of Oz,’ created by Heidi Beeler and Flynn DeMarco, bringing the magic and music of Oz – from the 1939 cinema classic, and from the Broadway musicals Wicked and The Wiz.

Nowlen has helmed this production for three years now. He is a busy man, serving as Artistic Director for a handful of other orchestras throughout the northern California region. I asked him what he appreciates most about working with the San Francisco Lesbian/ Gay Freedom Band.

Being with the (SFLGFB) merges my musical career and my activist spirit. It is an amazing group of people – the title pretty much says it all. Each year, a completely new show is written and produced by volunteers. The creative energy and spirit required to bring that off is typical of the way the band operates – offering great concerts and supporting dozens of civic and charitable events through music.

And what are Nowlen’s favorite personal holiday traditions?

I love to watch some version of the Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve. Most often, Scrooge (the Musical) but some years The Muppet Christmas Carol. We also watch Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut. I also love seeing the Nutcracker each year, which I have done in Sacramento, Berkeley (Hard Nut), San Francisco, San Jose and other Northern California productions.

Dance-Along will be performed for two days only at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind holiday tradition. Click here for details.

Stapleton Ballet's THE NUTCRACKER (Photo: Steven Caras)

Stapleton Ballet’s THE NUTCRACKER (Photo: Steven Caras)

Stapleton Ballet’s The Nutcracker – Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, San Rafael 

Many Marin County dwellers are already familiar with the magic and charm of Virginia Stapleton’s Nutcracker. For 27 years, the Stapleton School of Performing Arts has been providing Marin County with a unique holiday tradition of their own. 

This year, new choreography and costumes will be integrated into Act II. Napa artist and former MGM illustrator Nick Cann has redesigned the set for the Waltz of the Flowers. Eastern European Folk Dance master Vassilii Mountian has created a new Russian variation, and faculty member Shelley Scott created new choreography for the Reed Flute roles. Stapleton comments: 

Shelley’s choreography is inspired by the great George Balanchine, in its quickness of steps and difficulty level of pointe work. 

Long-time Managing Director of the school, Sharon Burns, describes a labor of love:

My daughter began dancing in the Stapleton Nutcracker in 2001 and was in the production for nine years. I really enjoy the passage of time and watching the children grow up through the lens of the Nutcracker. Girls who began as little mice are now performing lead roles. They are creating significant memories that will last a lifetime. I also love handling the volunteer coordination, all the parents who come together to support the ballet by serving on a variety of committees – stagehands, seamstresses, set load-in, makeup, dressing and more. When the final curtain comes down, it is a very rewarding feeling for all – despite the grueling schedule. 

Click here for details. 

Bay Pointe Ballet in Bruce Steivel's THE NUTCRACKER (Photo: SOSKIphoto)

Bay Pointe Ballet in Bruce Steivel’s THE NUTCRACKER (Photo: SOSKIphoto)

Bay Pointe Ballet’s The Nutcracker – San Mateo Performing Arts Center

“I’m a traditionalist at heart.” says Bruce Steivel, Artistic Director of Bay Pointe Ballet. Steivel’s Nutcracker is set in early 1900’s St. Petersburg, Russia, and the original Tchaikovsky score will be performed live by a full orchestra, the company’s very own Bay Pointe Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Derek Tam, Director of the Berkeley Community Chorus and Orchestra.

BPB is one of the largest professional ballet companies on the Peninsula. With 34 company members, they are one of the few companies that are still seeking to hire new dancers (dancers, take note!). And Steivel is an artistic maverick, creating all of the company’s repertoire, including his latest tour of Dracula. As if running his own company and working internationally as a choreographer and teacher isn’t enough, he also curates ODC’s New Works Series, where he chooses emergent and established choreographers from the Bay Area to present new works, an event held in the Spring at ODC Commons.

What are the challenges that the company faces?

It’s always difficult to draw an audience. Once people leave San Francisco, they are not as inclined to go out again to see a live performance like the ballet.They sit at home on the computer and don’t go out. It’s a difficult beast.

All the more reason to get out this season, to experience the excitement live, and support your local dance companies! Click here for details.

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Gennadi Nedvigin squires Maria Kochetkova in Helgi Tomasson’s THE NUTCRACKER (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet’s The Nutcracker – War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

Over 70 years ago, in 1944, The San Francisco Ballet debuted a ballet little known in America. SFB’s Nutcracker was the first full-length production in the U.S. and, in its present incarnation, remains one of the grandest and most glorious. Helgi Tomasson’s version, now in its eleventh season, is based on the original 1892 Russian ballet by Marius Petipa, though charmingly set in 1915 San Francisco.

A few of SFB’s dancers revealed to us their personal favorite thing about this Nutcracker.

Gennadi Nedvigin, Principal Dancer: 

What I love about Nutcracker is seeing young students grow and develop through the years—you get to see their progression, from smaller roles to bigger ones. My favorite divertissement is the Russian—it’s as hard as it looks but also as fun.

Anthony Spaulding, Soloist:

Nutcracker is a great holiday event for the family, and for any kids interested in dancing. They can look at Clara or any of the other student roles and imagine themselves on stage doing that part. Plus the ballet is extremely colorful and dynamic—I love looking out into the audience and seeing how engaged the kids are.  

Lauren Strongin, Soloist, who danced previously with Houston Ballet and Sarasota Ballet, and who joined SFB this year:

I’ve never danced in this production but I’m excited to perform the Grand Pas pas de deux. I feel like Helgi’s version is very danceable and, unlike many productions, it is not at all old-fashioned.

Click here for details

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