ODC/San Francisco

"The Velveteen Rabbit"

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

December 8, 2002
By Toba Singer

During the holiday season around the San Francisco Bay, a kid born in colder climes might get to feeling a little wistful because Jack Frost is no longer nipping at your nose. However, as if to compensate for the warmer weather here, Terpsichore nips artfully at our toes – giving us a sleighful of Christmas-themed dance productions to choose from. Stellar among them remains ODC/San Francisco’s The Velveteen Rabbit, choreographed by K.T. Nelson, and inspired by the children’s picture book of the same name, by Margery Williams.

From the moment the very lithesome and confident child dancer, Oriana Schaaf steps onto the stage to crank up the story, we are drawn into the tale of the nursery-worn rabbit that over the seasons – and with the help of the little boy who is his owner (Brian Fisher), and the fairy who intercedes on his behalf (Khamla Somphanh) – succeeds in becoming real.

Now in its 16th season, this production has remained true to its seeming mission: to offer a gently-told cautionary Christmas story, with all of the savory fluidity actor Geoff Hoyle’s rendering can impart, unfolding and awakening from an inventive holiday quilt of contemporary dance. The moments of theatrical “truth” are plentiful, thanks in no small part to Nelson’s openness and willingness to use the children throughout the production in ways that do not relegate them to simply being kidlet accessories to an adult cast. Unforgettable are moments such as when the children are dragged by the legs like upright vacuum cleaners to clear the stage of the debris left from unwrapping presents in the Christmas Party scene. K.T. Nelson’s creative hand is never idle.

Fisher’s buoyant theatrical presence is refreshing and engaging. The choirs of children in the full-house audience convulsed with laughter at his antics and expertly gymnastic dancing. Fisher’s Skin Horse gives us a character whose generosity of spirit is amplified by wide sashays in second position that breach the strict withholding decorum of British manners. Somphanh as Nana, supported beneath her skirt by Michael Vester, was as commanding as she was astute and caring. Her eye was everywhere, as she extended its locus via a pointing arm, hand and finger wherever she traveled.

The chorus of party guests, toys, medical attendants, and real rabbits was danced formally, playfully, dutifully and naughtily by the adult members of the company, with short cannons by the children. There was even a smooth pas de quatre, where two men partnered two girls. So far as I know, neither child’s parents filed a lawsuit. How very continental and un-American!

Some of the sprightly costumes and almost all of the scenery has changed since I saw The Velveteen Rabbit the first time many years ago, but when a star-studded cloud that is spiked to drop from above at bedtime appears, and Nana reaches up in a nanny-like routine gesture, plucking one of the stars out of the clouds and bringing it to earth for her sleepy charge, you feel your childhood toes all over again, as they curl into the carpet on Christmas Eve. Frost outside or not, that is exactly the right sense memory to take out of a theater south of Market Street in wintertime in San Francisco. Grab a kid or two, and go see it!


Performances continue through December 15, 2002.

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Edited by Mary Ellen.

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