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December 21, 2006

Stage Matters

A Sugar Plum Vision: An All-Humboldt Nutcracker


Five years ago, Danny Furlong's first Nutcracker as artistic director of the company that became North Coast Dance featured several dancers from San Francisco. Last year there were two guest artists in major roles. This year there were none: It was an all-Humboldt Nutcracker that played last weekend at HSU's Van Duzer Theatre.

For Furlong, who started here with just two dancers and a pianist, it was an obvious personal triumph. He's recently signed on for another five years with the semi-professional company he has built, partly by teaching some 1,500 classes. For audiences, one specific payoff was the emergence of Stephanie Kim as this year's Sugar Plum Fairy.

Talented young dancers like Tadesse Samelson (as the Cossack Doll and photo of Stephanie KimItalian Cough Drop) also wowed the opening night crowd, as well as veterans like Darus Trutna (a former Nutcracker) and Leelou Wisemyn (switching from Chinese Tea last year to Arabian Coffee with Trutna) and reprising their roles from last year, the leaping Sam Campbell (the Nutcracker), Brett Finta as a saucy Mouse King and Furlong himself reprising Drosselmeyer.

But it was Stephanie Kim, an 18-year-old HSU student, who supplied major thrills with discipline and grace. Furlong showcased her very carefully, eliminating her second act Pas de Deux with the Cavalier and substituting dances with six different male dancers in turn, then adding female dancers for her solo and both men and women for the coda. Though other choreographers have altered that key moment with a different configuration of dancers (including Mikhail Baryshnikov in his American Ballet Theatre production that's been seen on TV, tape and DVD probably more than any other ballet in history), Furlong changed it extensively, in what he describes as "a really radical approach."

Right: Stephanie Kim as this year's Sugar Plum Fairy.

This particular innovation was made possible partly by what Furlong described as one of the strengths of the company: the unusual number of men. "Regional companies usually have one guy -- the load bearer," Furlong said, in a conversation between shows on Saturday. "I have seven men, and adding me, that's eight."

But in addition to these considerations, Furlong had a narrative purpose. Though the Cavalier and Sugar Plum dance is often a second act highlight, it "comes out of nowhere" and "has basically nothing whatever to do with the storyline" of what is already a "very disjointed ballet." In this production, the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with her subjects.

Narrative clarity is also the reason behind other changes and refinements Furlong has made, including the expanded role of Drosselmeyer, the toy maker, "to make clear he's creating a fantasy vision for the girl." (Clara, charmingly reprised by Delia Bense-Kang.)

Though Furlong met his goal of a Nutcracker featuring only local dancers, he doesn't rule out bringing in guest artists in the future. "It's good for the company to have people come in from the outside." But he quickly added that Stephanie Kim did as fine a job as any of the ballerinas he's hired from San Francisco. "She's a remarkable ballerina, a very strong dancer."

In fact, she may someday be one of those guest dancers. "Any young dancer who is that powerful already is going to find a job," Furlong said. Though North Coast Dance's dancers are paid for performances, they don't get the weekly salary dancers might at a few professional companies. "They all have day jobs," Furlong says. "I encourage them to understand how the world works."

But having a company pays other dividends to the participants because dance depends on trained and disciplined individuals working together and communicating in performance. "Dancers work as a team. The strength of the performance is in the supporting cast," Furlong explained.

"Ballet is an incredibly emotional art. Dancers have an inner dialogue and a dialogue with each other that's so private, so little understood outside their own circle," Furlong said. Dancers need the support and understanding of the group because "they are very exposed. As I often say, you stand in your underwear in front of a crowd at 25 bucks a pop, and tell me how you feel."

In addition to the North Coast Dance company, the school now has 85 students and a faculty of five. Partly by teaching several semesters at College of the Redwoods, Furlong has recruited young adults, and prides himself on making dancers of them pretty quickly. Community support has also been crucial.

Furlong says he looks forward to his next five years. "People wonder how I'm doing here, because I've always lived in cities -- very glamorous cities: San Francisco, New York, Vancouver. But I find living here fascinating. Its isolation is its very strength. There aren't so many distractions to the work. That's what I wanted to show people by spotlighting local talent. We're so isolated that it's like living in an ancient city-state in Europe, like Florence in the 15th or 16th century, including the Byzantine and even Machiavellian politics."


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