Catching up after travels. The San Francisco Ballet “Nutcracker” is underway, and I reviewed Maria Kotchekova’s delightful debut in in for the Chronicle:

“News flash for you lingering holiday dance Grinches: The fusty, old San Francisco Ballet “Nutcracker” you remember from Christmases past is long gone. In its place since 2004 is a sparkling still-new miracle: one of the most beautiful “Nutcrackers” on the planet.

If you’re just discovering this, you will not be alone. On the eve of the company’s 75th anniversary, San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is going global. A “digicast” of Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s sumptuous staging will soon be screened in more than 70 theaters throughout North America and Europe, and this year’s performances are being filmed for broadcast next winter on PBS.

At Thursday night’s opening, cameras weren’t yet rolling, but everything looked ready for its close-up. Flower maidens waltzed with extra lilt, the snow scene’s confetti flakes came down in a blizzard, and Tchaikovsky’s eternal score sounded supremely sprightly under Music Director Martin West’s baton. There were surprises to fuel little-girl ballerina dreams and grown-up balletomane ravings alike, and sometimes – especially in the sensational debut of the new Russian-trained principal Maria Kochetkova – both at once.

Kochetkova, a 23-year-old recruit from the English National Ballet, is tiny and light, a sparrow. In the closing Grand Pas de Deux, she seemed hardly to touch the floor, and when she leapt toward her Nutcracker cavalier, Davit Karapetyan, for a diabolically difficult shoulder-sit, she landed as though she’d simply flitted to a fresh branch.”

Click here for the full review.

And just when you thought nothing more could be said about Mark Morris’s “The Hard Nut”–well, at least I tried:

“There are three certainties in American life – death, taxes and “Nutcracker” – and more than 15 years ago, Mark Morris took the sting out of one of them, replacing sugarplum sweetness with a raunchy 1960s suburbia house party, Dairy Queen-hatted snowflakes and friskily fertile, splay-legged waltzing flowers. No wonder then that “The Hard Nut,” which had premiered in Brussels, quickly became a hit and a nearly annual ritual in this country. But as the years pile on and “The Hard Nut” becomes more familiar, the question builds: Can an antidote to the “Nutcracker” as cod-liver-oil tradition avoid becoming cod liver oil itself?

The answer, it turned out Friday at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, is yes. The Mark Morris Dance Group is no stranger to Cal Performances in this production – they’ve danced it here for eight of the past 11 years – and many in the opening-night audience (including this critic) had seen it three or more times. Yet the laughs were fresh and frequent. If, like many arts fans in the Bay Area, you’ve been there, done that and wonder if it’s worth seeing “The Hard Nut” again before the run ends Sunday, let my smile-weary face answer affirmative.

The reasons why the show still tickles might seem obvious. Does anyone need it explained why a Christmas cocktail hour that features a polyester tree, a TV fireplace and a teenage daughter who can hardly keep from dry-humping the drunken guests is funny? Surely no other choreographer has mined Tchaikovsky for as many punch lines, and they speak for themselves, from the groovy Afro with hair pick firmly ensconced to the sideburn-laden hipster (Morris himself in an often scene-stealing walk-on) who returns from the loo with toilet paper attached to his pimp-height heels.

But the real reason “The Hard Nut” never loses its laughs runs far deeper than sight gags, and it has to do with Morris’ musicality. In “The Hard Nut,” his response to Tchaikovsky is often so simple that it’s deep. Almost every movement is both parody and tribute to the score. I can’t tell you why the way the waltzing flowers slump is funny – to understand that, you would have to see it, and the way the posture both captures and mocks the brooding swirl of emotions in the strident chords. I can’t fully explain why Morris’ most common comedic tack, note-for-note mockery, is a crackup: To get it you would have to see Craig Biesecker, as Drosselmeier, bouncing the Nutcracker doll dutifully along to every lilt in Tchaikovsky’s melody, affectionately revealing its near-inanity.”

Click herefor the full Chronicle review.

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