Monday, December 22, 2014

A Child's Christmas in Arcata

The Nutcracker ballet is an annual holiday season event in one form or another--and usually in several.  I've seen a number of non-professional and children's performances, and a professional production of the Duke Ellington jazz version in Pittsburgh.  I wrote about one North Coast Dance performance in December 2005.  Since it was not so much a review of that specific show as an evocation of these events beyond a single year, I am reproducing it here as a kind of Christmas card.  So happy holidays to all.

A Child's Christmas in Arcata December 2005

Outside, the moon was bright behind a scrim of luminous clouds in a cold and mostly clear sky. True, there wasn’t snow---not until a few faux flakes floated down onto the Van Duzer stage—but it was as close as Arcata comes to a fine winter night.

 Inside, in the opening night crowd for this year’s The Nutcracker, performed by North Coast Dance last Friday at HSU, there were a lot of children---possibly more than were in the show. Children on both sides of the footlights are a major reason this is a popular community event during the winter holiday season across North America and around the world.

 It’s a good show for adults, too, even those who don’t have a child in it. The NCD production has plenty of evocative sets, handsome costumes and magical lighting to entertain any eye. Artistic Director Danny Furlong fashioned a crisp first act, emphasizing the narrative, with lots of movement and comic asides, to set up the second act of mostly dancing, to the familiar music of Tchaikovsky.

But I kept thinking about a child’s experience. Children in the audience were brought along perhaps to cheer a sibling, or for the Christmas pageantry, or because they wanted to see the ballerinas (little girls in particular love ballerinas, as surely as they love purple).

 So The Nutcracker may often be a child’s first exposure to live dance, or even live performance. Seeing other children onstage---or other teenagers---presents the possibility that they, too, could enter this world that looks and feels quite a bit different from anything they’ve seen on American Idol.

 On Friday night they saw children perform with the presence, discipline and conviction of the adults onstage with them. Delia Bense-Kang was a perfect Clara, bringing the audience along on her journey with charm and economy. Tyler Elwell as her brother Fritz was shrewd casting, and he did his job---advancing the story and shining in his dance moments. This was true of the other children as well.

 Young dancers at every stage of learning and experience got the invaluable benefit of working alongside consummate professionals like Brook Broughton (the Sugar Plum Fairy) and Andre Reyes(Cavalier Ricola), who brought talent and standards accrued from dancing prominent roles in major companies such as the San Francisco Ballet.

 There were other experienced and skilled guest and local adult dancers to admire and emulate. Between the beginners and the veterans were dancers of various ages and levels of experience. Not everyone in such a large cast can be mentioned, but they all gave disciplined performances at minimum, with some flashes of fire and exhilarating moments.

 With his engaging, athletic performance, young Sam Campbell was a crowd favorite, the first Humboldt Native American dancer (Hupa) to play the title role of the Nutcracker here.

 Many of the younger dancers have already trained for years, and at each stage of their development take on new challenges to excel at exacting forms of dance and performance. Some will continue, perhaps to pursue a professional career elsewhere, or to find their fulfillment close to home.

 Others may find their passion fading as their ambitions and bodies change, but they will apply lessons learned to other aspects of their lives. Even to have simply experienced the gangly long limbs of late childhood and adolescence redeemed by the grace of dance is no small thing.

 They may retain the lesson Agnes DeMille wrote that she learned from Martha Graham, who told her: “There is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it is lost…It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable…It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”

 And they may become wise and still-passionate stalwarts of the arts audience, despite any melancholies of races lost and roads not taken. If so, they may well be bringing their children to a future production of The Nutcracker.

 Finally, this tradition of The Nutcracker most clearly connects the artists to the community, and the community to their artists. During intermission, audience veterans of past shows chatted about what was added, while others tried to keep their wrapped bouquets fresh for their loved one(s) onstage.

Clearly I was fascinated by the chocolate fountain
in the lobby.  I took way too many photos of it.
At the lobby reception after the show, Sam Campbell’s extended family gathered around him for lots of photos—both of his grandmothers were there, he said, and several aunties.

It was late for the younger dancers (one changed from her costume directly into her pajamas), but two girls made the rounds of the (slightly) older ballerinas, getting them to write remembrances in their programs.

Despite the festivities, it wasn’t quite Christmas---the dancers had a matinee and another evening show the next day, plus the final matinee on Sunday. Art means work as well as glory. For those privileged to participate, that’s part of the magic, too.

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