Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: San Francisco Ballet Opens its 2011 season with Giselle, a ballet with staying power

Yuan Yuan Tan and Artem Yachmenikov in Tomasson's Giselle. @Tomasson

The San Francisco Ballet launched its 2011 season Saturday night with a breathtaking performance of Giselle, one of the most beloved classical ballets. SF Ballet principle dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Artem Yachmennikov in the lead roles of Giselle and Count Albrecht, danced Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s 1999 production of this venerable 170 year old classic to perfection.  If you haven’t been to the ballet lately, or are introducing a young one to the art form, the San Francisco Ballet, in its 78th season, and the oldest professional ballet company in America, is well worth a visit and Giselle is the classic to see—steeped in tradition and full of wispy white-tulled maidens seeking love with toe-dancing elevated to art.  The production run is full of roll switches—11 different dancers in the lead roles of Giselle and Albrecht.  The remarkable Yuan Yuan Tan, who seems capable of dancing on air, is certainly a Giselle to see, performing again on the closing evening, Saturday, February 12.    

Giselle epitomizes all the features of classical ballet—extensive pointe work, turn-out of the legs and high extensions– all executed in graceful, flowing, precise movements.  When it premiered in 1841, at the Paris Opera Ballet, it was a hit, exploring the relatively new theme in dance of a peasant in love with a nobleman.  It has continued to grow in statue and is now part of the repertoire of most major companies.  Tomasson has based his version of Giselle on what we know of the original 1841 French version’s choreography by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli and on Russian Marius Petipa’s later adaptation.  Tomasson has added a pas de deux for Giselle and Albrecht in Act 1 and reworked another peasant pas de deux in Act 1 to make it a pas de cinq to accommodate more dancers.   The music is by French composer Adolphe Charles Adam and is significant historically because it was actually composed for the ballet, breaking with the then common practice of piecing together pre-existing melodies for ballets.

The story is unforgettable.  Seen with modern eyes, it can be interpreted in many ways.  Like the age-old tales of Orpheus and Eurydice or Tristan and Isolde, Giselle can be about the triumph of love over death.  It also shows us the unbridgeable gap between stories repeated to us in childhood of love in far away magical places and the crushing brutality of unattainable love.  I found myself toggling between the two– viewing it in hopeful childhood mode and knowing as an adult that disaster was just around the corner.

Giselle is a simple peasant girl in a Rhineland village who loves Loys and is unaware he is really a nobleman named Albrecht who is just disguised as Loys.  Hilairion, a gamekeeper who is infatuated with Giselle, is jealous of Albrecht and tells Giselle his true identity.  Realizing Albrecht is to going to marry someone else, Giselle goes mad; her weak heart gives out and she dies. 

Artem Yachmenikov in Tomasson's Giselle. @Tomasson.


In Act II, the very essence of romantic ballet, the ethereal wilis, spirits of girls jilted by their lovers before their wedding day, appear at midnight and encounter Hilarion and toss him to his death.  Next, they encounter Albrecht and prepare to dance him to death.  Giselle intervenes and saves his life giving him the strength to dance all night.  She forgives him for his prince in disguise duplicity and rescues him from the horror of feminine vengeance.  By not succumbing to hateful ways of the Wilis, Giselle is freed from any association with them, and returns to her grave to rest in eternal peace. Albrecht watches her die again.   If danced well, the ballet’s ending is unbearably sad but it is also a celebration of the inherent goodness in people like Giselle.  

The ballet’s credibility is almost completely anchored in the expressive qualities Giselle, its heroine. Yuan Yuan Tuan, now in her thirties, gave a technically striking performance, outdancing everyone on stage in Act 1, where she plays the innocent maiden, not yet a woman.   With her long limbs capable of seemingly impossible movements, she is almost too graceful, too regal to be a peasant.  In Act 2, she was riveting.  What extensions!  On one supporting foot, you see her begin to extend her other leg effortlessly to almost 180 degrees and then push even further in astounding Penchee arabesque, an absolutely grueling pose that Tuan has turned into poetry.  Paired with the dashing Artem Yachmennikov, a tall striking dancer who complements her, the two made a dazzling couple, very lyrical.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Artem Yachmenikov in Tomasson's Giselle. @Tomasson.

Can Tuan act?   If anything, that is her shortfall, more evident in Act 2 where she needed to pull off the transition to the ethereal spirit world and convey that she has been tragically broken by the loss of love.  Here, Tan played Giselle with a mental absorption that was palpable but flat in terms of dramatic tension, emotional credibility.  She executed it all with astounding technical precision though—demanding acrobatic footwork and beautiful weightless adagios with Yachmennikov where she seemed to glide across the mist-filled stage.

Elana Altman, a stand-in as Myrta, Queen of the Wilis, danced the role with the imperious queen’s role with grandeur.  The 24-veiled Wilis in their lovely dresses with outstretched arms, were graceful and precise executing their line dances against the backdrop of the deep forest.

Pascal Molat was fabulous as Hilarion, the rough young peasant with the heart of gold.  No matter how many birds he tossed at Giselle’s door, or how perfect his footwork, she had eyes only for Loys/Albrecht.  

Mikael Melbye’s set design for both acts features magnificent enormous trees, splendidly lit, giving a very organic feel to the stage. 

There are six remaining performances of Giselle (with alternating principal dancers) at San Francisco’s elegant landmark War Memorial Opera House.  The 2011 season includes two other classical performances: George Balanchine’s Coppélia and an All-Tchaikovsky program (Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams, and the world premiere of Helgi Tomasson’s Trio). There are three mixed bill programs of modern masters that include William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite, Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, and John Neumeier’s full-length ballet, The Little Mermaid,  and three mixed bill programs premiering new works by Yuri Possokhov, Helgi Tomasson and Christopher Wheeldon.  The season closes with the Nutcracker.

Wilis as Slav vampires?  In researching Giselle, I came across some interesting notes on the origin of wilis in “The Origins of Giselle” section of the Metropolitan’s Opera’s site (also mentioned on the wordIQ site in its definition of Slavic Fairies).

“…where do these mythical creatures come from? Meyer’s Konverationslexikon defines Wiles or Wilis as female vampires, the spirits of betrothed girls who are jilted before their wedding night. According to Heine wilis came from a Slav legend of maidens who are engaged to be married but die before their wedding. They are unable to rest in their graves because they could not satisfy their passion for dancing when they were alive. They therefore gather on the highway at midnight to lure young men and dance them to their death. There is a Slave word ‘vila’ which means vampire. The plural is vile, and wilis is probably a Germanic pronunciation of that word as a ‘w’ in German is pronounced like a ‘v’. (Puccini’s first opera is based on the same legend, in Italian Le Villi.) In Serbia they were maidens cursed by God; in Bulgaria they were known as samovily, girls who died before they were baptized; and in Poland they are beautiful young girls floating in the air atoning for frivolous past lives.”

Details: Remaining performances of Giselle: Tuesday, February 1, 2011, at 8 p.m., Wednesday, February 2, 2011, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, February 4, 2011, at 8 p.m., Thursday, February 10, 2011, at 8 p.m (features Principal Dancer, Maria Kochetkova), Saturday, February 12, 2011, at 2 and 8 p.m.(features Yuan Yuan Tan as Giselle) , and Sunday February 13, 2011 at 2 p.m.  Tickets: $48 to $150.00, with a variety of attractively priced thematic packages for multiple performances.  (415) 865-2000 or

January 31, 2011 Posted by | Dance | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Family Tree” an exceptional fine woodworking show at the Petaluma Arts Center

Barbara Holmes' site specific installation from re-purposed buildling lath is the focal point of "Family Tree," the fine woodworking exhibition at the Petaluma Arts Center through March 13, 2011. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Handmade furniture is the emphasis of “Family Tree: Fine Woodworking in Northern California,” the Petaluma Art Center’s stunning new exhibition which opened last Saturday and runs through March 13, 2011.  The show traces the lineage of California’s pivotal wood artists from 1945 forward and includes masterpieces from pioneers Bob Stockdale, Arthur Espenet Carpenter, Arthur Hanna, and J.B. Blunk to present graduates of the wood furniture design program at California College of the Arts.  In all, 25 artists whose work has influenced California’s contemporary fine woodworking movement are included in the show.  Curator and exhibition designer Kathleen Hanna is giving a gallery walk-though this Saturday, January 29, 2011 from noon to 1 pm at the Petaluma Art Center. Following her tour, Sebastopol woodworker Jerry Kermode will give a lathe turning demonstration and problem-solving symposium for all interested on the grounds of the art center from 1 to 4 p.m.

Details: The Petaluma Arts Center is located at 230 Lakeville Street, at E. Washington in central Petaluma, 94952.  Phone: (707) 762-5600

January 28, 2011 Posted by | Petaluma Arts Council | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Art of the Ad…2010 British Television Advertising Awards screen at Yerba Buena Center this week

Is one of the main reasons you have TiVo to fast forward through the mindless and annoying television ads?  Here are some British TV ads that you won’t mind watching.  They are actually more like short-films, so artfully done in fact that they are being presented on big screens all across America.  The British Television Advertising Awards 2010, screening at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, this Thursday through Sunday, presents a collection of the past year’s most thought-provoking British ads, chosen annually by top advertising executives and producers across the globe.

While this annual program has been available in major cities across the country for some time now, this is the second year that the Yerba Buena Center brings these British commercials and PSA’s to the Bay Area.  There are literally dozens of winners spread across several categories with winners ranging from big names like Volkswagen, McDonald’s and Cadbury, to lesser known names like the (British) Department for Transport .  The winner of the best ad of the year “Life’s for Sharing,” by Saatchi and Saatchi for T-Mobile, features an energetic and spontaneous mass dance-off at the Liverpool Street Station last year.  The clip is part of the “Life’s for Sharing” campaign and cleverly shows just how quickly joy spreads through a crowd, encouraging the viewing audience to share their joy with others – by using their T-Mobile phones.

My personal favorite is a humorous ad for Birdseye Salmon Fish Fingers by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO.  A femme fatale salmon fish stick slinks towards two other fish sticks and introduces herself as the new salmon fish finger.  One of the fish fingers asks the other if that means she is all pink underneath and she confirms by unzipping her breadcrumb coating which causes the other sticks to fall flat on their backs in excitement.  Another wonderful one minute Cadbury Dairy Milk (milk chocolate) ad, “Eyebrows,” by Fallon has a young boy and girl seated side by side moving their eyebrows outrageously in sync with music, a simple idea with a creative twist. 

Changing Lives,” a direct response child care ad for Barnardo’s, the UK’s leading children’s charity, by BBH, is the world’s first interactive donation poster.  The poster’s power lies in its subtlety.  It features a seemingly living breathing young girl staring sadly into space with tears running down her face.  Only after money is inserted in the attached collection box, does she look up and slightly smile, showing that our spare change really can change children’s lives.

With their innovative cinematography, slightly to highly familiar subject matter, sometimes explicit and shocking content, humor, and added British twist, these ads are fascinating.  When’s the last time, Superbowl aside, you thought that about American television ads?  The program runs 80 minutes. 

Details:  Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, San Francisco. Screens Thursday, January 27- Sunday, January 30, 2011:  2 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., 8 p.m.  (No 8 p.m. screening on Sunday.)  Tickets: $8 regular; $6 students, seniors, teachers and YBCA members.  For more information visit, or call (415) 978-2787.

January 25, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Lang Lang at Davies Symphony Hall

Lang Lang played Beethoven, Albeniz and Prokofiev to a sold-out audience at Davies Symphony Hall on January 18, 2011 as part of their Great Performers Series. Photo courtesy SF Symphony.

World-renowned pianist Lang Lang was in San Francisco this week for two special performances: a Davies Symphony Hall Recital on Tuesday, January 18th, under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series  and his 101 Pianists event Monday evening at San Francisco State University in which he joined 100 young Bay Area pianists in playing Schubert’s Marche Militaire. Both events were packed to capacity.

I caught his performance at Davies Symphony Hall on Tuesday evening, my first time to hear him live.  The program featured Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 3 and 23; Iberia Book 1 by Isaac Albéniz; and Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7.  This was basically a run-through of the most popular sonatas from his best-selling Live in Vienna album recorded in 2008–his second live recorded recital after his best-selling Live at Carnegie Hall in 2004.  It’s also a program he has been touring with.

Lang Lang, now 28, has two decades of performances and celebrity under his belt.  In 2008, over five billion people watched him play in the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, where he was seen as a symbol of the youth and the future of China.  He is said to have subsequently inspired over 40 million Chinese children to learn to play classical piano – a phenomenon coined by The Today Show as “the Lang Lang effect.”  But as much as audiences love Lang Lang for his zeal, critics waver, praising his technical virtuosity but panning his flamboyant gyrations,  interpretation and lack of emotional connection to the music.

I came expecting something bold and spectacular.  I’d read that at his last concert in San Francisco, for an encore, he played Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” on his iPad using the Magic Piano app and the audience went wild.  Tuesday’s performance was energetic but nowhere near what my imagination had conjured in terms of showing-off.

Lang Lang conducted a workshop with 100 young Bay Area pianists practicing Schubert's Marche Militaire at San Franacisco State University's McKenna Theatre as part of his 101 Pianists event on Monday, November 17, 2011.

Lang Lang quietly walked onto the stage, sat down at the piano and started immediately with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, a very challenging piece.  It didn’t take long for me to become immersed in the beauty of his playing.  Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.3 in C major, written in 1796, in four movements, roughly 24 minutes, is often referred to as Beethoven’s first virtuosic piano sonata.  It’s very demanding, especially the first movement and very emotive in the second, Adagio, movement.  Lang Lang nailed the energetic second movement and then brought it to a tempered soft close. 

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, the Appassionata, composed in 1804-5, followed immediately.  It is widely considered one of the masterworks of the composer’s middle period, very dense, evocative and meant to be played with the unrelenting ferocity that Lang Lang is often criticized for.  This was one of the first pieces written after Beethoven became fully aware of his progressive and irreversible deafness and was written during the period that he was labeled with the madman/genius image.  The Appassionata was also the first piece he wrote after having received a state of the art piano as a gift from the Érard piano company. Beethoven’s statement– this is very beautiful music that is also testing the crap out of this piano, as it is my own hearing.  How did Lang Lang do?  Respectfully well.  The piece was about twenty three minutes long.  Almost immediately, I felt myself floating away on a cloud orbiting the concert hall channeling the very deep despair that Beethoven himself must have felt. When I landed, I noticed Lang Lang’s the left hand stationary in space as the right played…the right hand then slowly and weirdly directing, coaxing the left.  There were moments too when he seemed to be acting with sensitivity to accentuate that he was playing with sensitivity.  It looked like a guy trying way too hard to manufacture feelings he didn’t have and importantly, we felt that.  And this is the core of the debate about Lang Lang.  It’s completely subjective, but the antics took away from my experience of a piece played exquisitely. 

The highlight came after the intermission with Albéniz’s Iberia, Book One in three movements, a century (1905-1909) and miles apart stylistically from Beethoven.  From the first muted bars of Evocación to El Corpus in Sevilla, Lang Lang excelled at this beautiful and richly textured piece thought by many to have been truly mastered only by the great Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha.  Book One’s three movements are typical of the entire piece—poetic middle episodes, incisive rhythms, bold harmonies, and infused with local color.  Evocación is dreamlike with a very powerful climax in the middle section which Lang Lang mastered.  El Corpus in Sevilla, one of Iberia’s most popular segments, employs a march tune from the Spanish town of Burgos.  The great procession is at first distant and then ushered in by the piano imitating drumbeats that grow louder and louder and the excitement builds.  The movement grows quieter in its mid-section, gets festive again, and then ends with a long serene coda all mystery and poetry.  Lang Lang’s body movements and hand gestures punctuated the silences as well as the counter-rhythms.

He closed with Prokofiev’s revolutionary and explosive war sonata, Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83 a piece he was clearly at ease with but passionately banged the heck out of, ending in a flurry of speed.

He encored with Rachmaninoff’s D-Major Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4, then followed with a gorgeous Chopin Etude. 

In all, I came away in awe of Lang, who like Elvis, does it his way.  Lang Lang was off the very next day (Wednesday) to play for President Obama and first lady, Michelle Obama, at a lavish State Dinner honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao.  Lang Lang will play four-hands with Jazz legend Herbie Hancock and “My Motherland,” the theme song of a famous 1956 film called Battle on Shangganling Mountain set during the Korean war.

Details: next up in the Great Performers Series is Russian opera baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in solo recital of songs by Fauré, Taneyev, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky on Sunday, February 13, 2011, 8 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall.  Tickets: $15 to $83. Box Office: (415) 864-6000 or

Lang Lang’s next Bay Area performance is this Sunday, January 23, 2011, 7:30 p.m., at the “Master Piano Series: an Evening with Lang Lang,” at California Theatre, 345 South First Street, San Jose.  Tickets: Sold Out.  Check for last minute availability.

January 19, 2011 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: “Clue” from board game to movie, and now the play–Boxcar Theatre’s brilliant staging makes this a must-see, through February 12, 2011

In Boxcar Theatre's Clue through February 12, 2011, the audience is 6 feet above a life-size reproduction of the game's actual playing board. Characters Miss Scarlet (Sarah Savage), (hidden) Mr. Boddy (Adam Simpson), Mr. Green (Peter Matthews), Professor Plum (Justin Liszanckie), (hidden) Mrs. White (Michelle Ianiro), Colonel Mustard (Nick A. Olivero), Mrs. Peacock (J. Conrad Frank) and Wadsworth (Brian Martin). Photo by Peter Lieu.

A play based on a movie based on a board game–it makes for a curious artistic vision. Peter Matthews and Nick A. Olivero, the artistic directors of San Francisco’s tiny Boxcar Theatre, have meticulously crafted Clue the play for the past four years.  Even before it opened to a sold out audience last Wednesday, Clue’s run had been extended an additional two weeks.  The team hit pay dirt when word got out that their play was ingeniously staged like the classic board game.  The audience is seated six feet above peering down at a life-size reproduction of the game’s exact playing board, replete with 9 rooms–the Ballroom, Conservatory, Billiard Room, Library, Study, Hall, Lounge, Dining Room and Kitchen.  In fact, everything is like the board game, rather the 1985 cult movie that ripped off the board game. 

Ever done a major home remodel?  The interior of Boxcar has that feel–there’s scaffolding, narrow passages and a flight of stairs to navigate.   The seating arrangement is a square, accommodating 11 people snugly on each side, 44 individuals in all, who look down and watch murder unfold amongst a group of six people summoned to a Tudor mansion on a foggy night.  The feel is very intimate, up close, something no big production could pull off.  

You’ll immediately recognize the  six guests–Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum, Miss Scarlet, Mr. Green, Mrs. Peacock and Mrs. White–and the butler.  First, Mr. Boddy, the mansion’s owner is found dead at the foot of cellar stairs by Miss Scarlett.  The cause of death has yet to be determined but there are 6 objects around the mansion that could have been used–a dagger, a rope, a piece of lead pipe, a candlestick, a revolver and a wrench.  Tensions build as bodies mount and the guests shuffle from room to room having discovered that they all have at least one thing in common–each one of them is being blackmailed by Mr. Boddy and each one thus has motive to kill.   With secrets unfolding and secret passages running underneath the audience’s seats and three complex endings to ponder, this thrilling who dunnit is the best Clue rip off yet.

Why the three endings?  In keeping with the nature of the board game, Clue, the movie, was released with one of three possible endings making it one of the only mainstream movies ever with alternative endings.   Different theaters received different endings and the film was then advertised locally as having ending A, B, or C depending on which ending the theatre had received.  In the film’s home video release, all three endings were included.  The play is true to the movie and gives you all three endings to consider.

The cast is wonderful, anchored by J. Conrad Frank playing the movie’s Eileen Brannon playing Mrs. Peacock, an elderly yet still attractive elegantly coiffed woman who maintains her dignity and marvelous falsetto at all costs. Frank, who was named Best Drag Act, 2008 by the San Francisco Bay Guardian, is well known around town as Countess Katya Smirnoff-Skyy , brings warmth and an outrageous verve to the role.  Not to mention his fabulous satin gown, jewelry, netted peacock feather hat, shoes and bosoms…all designed by Stephanie Desnoyers who is also the on stage Stage Manager.  

J. Conrad Frank as Eileen Brannan as Mrs. Peacock and Nick A. Olivero as Martin Mull as Colonel Mustrad in Boxcar Theatre's outrageous production of Clue through February 12, 2011. Photo Peter Lieu

Michelle Ianiro is Madeline Kahn playing Mrs. White, a tragic and sassy widow who allegedly murdered her five previous husbands.  

While no one can really do Tim Curry doing the butler, Brain Martin shines as Wadsworth the know-it-all butler who guides the players and the game to its conclusion and at the end furiously spews three plausible versions of  who did it.

Sarah Savage shoots for Lesley Ann Warren as the sexy Miss Scarlet, while Justin Liszanckie is UN Health inspector Professor Plum ready to feel up whoever’s within his reach.  Linnea George is Yvette, the pretend French maid who’s voluptuous curves distract from other truths. 

And Boxcar’s artistic directors Peter Mathews and Nick Olivero shine as Mr. Green (Michael McKean in the movie) and Colonel Mustard (Martin Mull in the movie.)

And Adam Simpson, as the stock Mr. Boddy, et al., dies several times–as the cook, the stranded motorist, the lawman and the blackmailer Mr. Boddy.  

Keep your eyes fixed, there’s action below in the mansion and off to the sides at audience level as well.  Before you go, see the movie.  And if you aren’t familiar with the board game, start there.

What does the future hold for Clue?   Universal Studios recently announced that a Clue remake is in the works with a release date set for 2013.  

Details: Clue runs Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. at Boxcar Theatre, 505 Natoma Street (at Sixth Street), San Francisco.  There is street parking along with private and public parking lots, including a garage at Fifth and Mission streets.  tickets:  $25 – $30, (415) 776-1747,

January 18, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Petaluma Film Series resumes at Aqus Café

Vanishing of the Bees screening February 13th at the Petaluma Film Series takes a piercing investigative look at the wroldwide disappearance of the honeybee population.

The Petaluma Film Series organized by Peter deKramer is back for its winter 2011 season with films shown every Sunday at Aqus Café in Petaluma.  DeKramer has built a real community, uniting film buffs and concerned citizens in Petaluma through screenings addressing issues of concern.  Every screening concludes with a lively conversation, generally a Q & A with the filmmakers or film sponsor in the relaxed atmosphere of the café.  The winter 2011 season will focus on environmental issues.  Previous screenings have addressed issues as far flung as adoption,

On February 13th  Vanishing of the Bees, directed by George Langworthy and Maryann Henein, will screen at 7 pm.  Honey bees have been disappearing across the planet, vanishing form their hives.  Known as Colony Collapse Disorder, this phenomenon has brought beekeepers to a crisis. Filmed across the US, in Europe, Australia and Asia in 2008-2009, this documentary examines the alarming disappearance of honeybees and the greater meaning it holds about the relationship between mankind and mother earth.  The 90 minute film follows commercial beekeepers David Hackenberg and Dave Mendes as they strive to keep their bees healthy and fulfill pollination contracts across the U.S.  The film is co-presented by Daily Acts

To see a full schedule of films, visit 

Details: films are shown most Sundays of the month at 7 pm at Aqus Café, 2nd & H Streets, Petaluma.  Admission is free but a $4 donation is suggested.

January 13, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , | Leave a comment

2nd Annual German Gems Film Festival set to sparkle at the Castro this weekend and in Point Arena on January 22, 2011

Johannes Silberschneider (left) as Mahler and Karl Markovics as Freud in MAHLER ON THE COUCH by Percy and Felix Adlon. The film opens the second German Gems Film Festival this Friday at the Castro Theatre. Photo courtesy of German Gems

The 2nd German Gems film festival opens this Friday evening at the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco, presenting a line-up of ten fascinating new German-language films.  A portion of the program will be shown in Point Arena at their historic Arena Theatre on Saturday, January 22, 2011.  The emphasis of this little festival is on new filmmakers and first features whose narratives and styles define new trends in German-language cinema.  The festival opens with Mahler on the Couch  by the father and son team, Percy Adlon (Baghdad Café, Sugar Babies, Salmonberries) and Felix Adlon.  This magical and timely narrative feature of doomed love and musical genius comes at the centennial of the famous Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler’s death.  It focuses on his wife, Alma Mahler’s affair with the young architect Walter Gropius that drives her famous husband to Sigmund Freud’s couch.

 And that’s just the first gem…there are nine others addressing the little known but awesome sport of river surfing, a celebrated architect whose personal life is in complete ruins, a 17 year-old girl who viciously and unexpectedly murders a classmate, a 78 year-old pilot whose has flown notables like Haille Selassie and the king of Yemen who is building his dream plane in the Caribbean for an air show in Florida, and an epic mountain film set in South Tyrol in 1809 that is a grand love story between a Bavarian woman and a Tyrolean rebel who are both enmeshed in Napoleon’s quest for empire. 

Ingrid Eggers, founder of German Gems, now in its second year at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco.

Earlier this week, I spoke with Ingrid Eggers who founded German Gems last year.  Eggers, a long-time Bay Area resident, ran the very successful Berlin and Beyond film festival from 1996 through 2009.  Under her guidance, Berlin and Beyond became one of the most successful German language film festivals outside of Europe, presenting over 500 films to 100,000 people in the Bay Area. When the Goethe-Institut San Francisco, which had sponsored Berlin and Beyond, merged it with Los Angeles’ German Currents festival to create a single West Coast event in October, 2009, Eggers had mandatory retirement forced upon her.  She re-emerged a few months later with German Gems, a one day, three film mini-fest at the Castro Theatre that was tremendously popular. Now, she is back with her second German Gems and a lot to say about German film.

What does German Gems allow you to offer the Bay Area audience that you couldn’t offer before? 

Ingrid Eggers:  I looked very carefully at Berlin and Beyond and the other German festivals in California and examined their current programming and didn’t see any focus on first feature films from young filmmakers. I decided to bring first features here–documentaries as well narrative features–to give young filmmakers from film schools a chance to show their films in San Francisco.  In Germany, there’s a lot of money for filmmaking, a lot of competition, and there’s a lot of very interesting film resulting from that.  It’s very hard for this group to find a festival that will take them.  Our selection of 10 films, one of which is a 20 minute short, includes 6 first features and several of the filmmakers will be here to present their films.

What impacted your decision to expand to a full weekend this year?

Ingrid Eggers:  The first German Gems did very well and I thought this January slot, which was when Berlin and Beyond used to be held, was very good because there’s not much happening.  I am also offering films that wouldn’t otherwise be shown here. Of the 10 films in my program, none of them has an American distributor at this point.  The big Bay Area festivals, SFIFF (San Francisco International Film Festival) and Frameline (Gay and Lesbian festival), aren’t showing many German films. SFIFF has emphasized French films, and it does the little French and Italian series in the fall.  I am not sure where the new director of Berlin and Beyond is headed; he’s Cambodian and seems to be moving in an international direction.  I want to continue represent German films and think there is definitely an audience. 

Do you select all the films yourself?  What are your criteria?

Ingrid Eggers:  I don’t do it all alone.  I have a group of people here who watch the films and another group of UCLA film school students (which includes my daughter) in Los Angeles because I want to have some young eyes look at this too.  And I go to the festivals– Munich in the summer, Berlinale (Berlin International Film Festival) in February and German Currents in Los Angeles in October—and I see what’s going on.  I get lots of films sent to me too. 

In terms of selection, the number one criterion is quality and that’s a very subjective thing.  For me, quality is based on the screenplay, cinematography, the way the film is made, and the filmmaker’s point of contact with the story.  It all has to work.  This year, we’ve got Celebration of Flight a documentary resulted from the filmmaker (director Lara Juliette Sanders) traveling to the Caribbean, to Dominica, and meeting a 78 year-old pilot, a quite amazing guy, who was working on building a plane.  It all came together beautifully.  The filmmaker has a curious story too—she was in advertising and quit and went to the airport and said I’m going to fly to No. 10 on this big list of departures.  That’s how she ended up in the Caribbean and found Daniel Rundstrom.  She wrote a book about this and has become very popular in Germany, on all the talk shows.  The outcome is that she became a filmmaker and has relocated to LA.  Daniel impressed me too: he is so methodical in the pursuit of his dream but then there were big problems with this plane at the air show in Miami.  Both the director and Daniel will be at the festival.

KEEP SURFING's director Bjorn Richie Lob, an avid river surfer, rides a wave on the Eisbach in a still from KEEP SURFING, photo courtesy of German Gems

There’s another one, David Wants to Fly which is really the story of two David’s–director David Sieveking whose subject is Director David Lynch– and TM (Transcendental Meditation).  Sieveking got more and more sucked into TM and then found out about the very harsh side of it and that impacted his talks with David Lynch.  So we get insight into TM and David Lynch and this quest and it all works. 

And when I saw Keep Surfing in Munich two years ago at its world premiere, I knew this had to be shown in the Bay Area. It really gets into this sport which is little known and into the stories of the people who are doing it. It represents years of work too.  I knew nothing about this before I saw the film and I know Munich. They took me from the theatre just 10 minutes down the street to the Eisbach and it was quite amazing. I really wanted the film and finally I got it

Of course, you don’t always get you want because distributors are asking a lot of money, even for small films. Our festival is very small and if you want to get new productions, the world sales people will tell you that they want to wait and see if the film is picked up by a larger festival in the area first.  The bigger festivals want to premiere films that have not been shown in the area before.  You get lots of no’s, but we always find great films that fit our program. 

The films I have seen—Mahler on the Couch, Mountain Blood, The Architect, She Deserved It, Disenchantments— all rely on exceptionally well-developed stories and actors rather than special effects to carry the day.  Is this your curating preference or a theme in German film?

Ingrid Eggers:  I think that young filmmakers are not going for special effects because these things cost money.  It’s hard enough to get good actors, but actors can sometimes be persuaded to donate their services. 

Josef Bierbichler as Georg Winter in THE ARCHITECT, Ina Weisse's feature debut about a man whose long-held secrets drag his family down. Photo courtesy of German Gems

What themes are young German filmmakers exploring these days?  

Ingrid Eggers:  I’ve been asking myself that question. I can tell you what is not in the film that I am watching now.   One of the things is war epics…Iraq, Afghanistan… wars have been done. I’m not seeing that in German or in new American films either.  The other thing is that I am not seeing is social clashes outside of the family.  Germany is full of Turks, the major minority in Germany.  Die Fremde (director Feo Aladağ, winner of 2010 European Lux Prize) is about honor killings through the narrative of a Turkish family living in Germany. It’s being shown all around and that’s why we aren’t showing it.  I think filmmakers are retreating with these problems into the family and not dealing head-on with these big subjects out there.  They are telling a story about family relationships, and at the same time, in parallel, a story with wider social, cultural and moral aspects. The Architect, She Deserved It, and Mountain Blood are examples of this. I didn’t see much engagement with gay topics either.  

Who are the filmmakers who are most influencing this new generation of German filmmakers?  Are they German, European, American, international?

Ingrid Eggers:  Usually, young German filmmakers graduating from film school will first try to write a good script and then see if they get funding for their film.  There’s so much money in Germany now for film, it comes from taxes, and as a result German film has gotten really good.  If you ask them–and we had these discussions at Berlin and Beyond here a couple of years ago with Wim Wenders and young filmmakers–you see that young German filmmakers watch a lot of films.  They are influenced by the all the big names out there– Antonioni, David Lynch—and they are investigating and comparing but I think their main thing is to try to do their own thing with their own story.

There is also a trend in Germany towards Hollywood with films being made in this pure entertainment style, trying to be blockbusters.  Some succeed but most don’t.   There are also young German filmmakers who migrate to Hollywood and give it a try.  Usually, they are not so successful.  Those who are most successful in German film are the ones who deal with more German topics.  The big example right now though is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who got an Oscar in 2007 for his fantastic debut feature film The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) and now he’s done The Tourist which I wouldn’t go and see.  I think he has much more interesting stories to tell than that one.  After success in Germany, opportunities may open up in the States but that doesn’t necessarily translate into success here.

 The Architect and She Deserved It make for a very heavy Saturday night.  What facet of German culture do they shed light on? 

I got totally fascinated by The Architect (Der Architekt) which is mystery, secrets and snow and the story of this successful guy who is a total mess.  In that isolated village, he cannot walk away from all of this and everything disintegrates in him and in his family.  It is quite intense.  People told me, and I agree, that if he hadn’t died, he would have gone back to that woman which no one wanted.  From a screenplay point of view, once the family went back to north Germany, he could not survive.  The amazing thing is that the young director, Ina Weisse, got these huge German stars, all the big names, to play in her film and did a fantastic job of directing it.

Sina Tkosch as Kati, Liv Lisa Fries as Linda, Francois Goeske as Josch, and Saskia Schindler as Susanne in the SHE DESERVED IT, Thomas Stiller's topical exploration of a 17 year-old who murders her classmate. Photo courtesy of German Gems

She Deserved It (Sie hat es verdient) is a very heavy film that’s hard to watch but we had to show it because teen-based violence is such a big topic now in Germany, actually all over the place, and we don’t really know why.  Families will probably say this can’t happen in my family but it happens every day, this past weekend in fact.   This is based on a true story of a 14 year old girl who killed her classmate.  This is shot basically from the perspective of the perpetrator, the young girl.  You really get under her skin and the dialogue with her mother–the only one who tries to find out what happened—is remarkable.  The filmmaker can’t be here but I’m going to have a therapist come up on stage and talk about the family dynamics in both families and what it is that has driven so many young people into despair, violence and suicide.  This film will be shown on German television and embedded in something called “theme evening” where people and experts talk and other things related to this topic of teenage violence are shown.  It’s a very important film.

You’ve picked a set of films that portray a very interesting and strong group of women.  The female characters in Alma Mahler, The Architect, Mountain Blood, She Deserved It— use their strengths in different ways, to different ends but they are all strong.  Is this you coming through?

Barbara Romaner portrays the passionate Alma Mahler, in Mahler on the Couch screening at German Gems 2011. Photo courtesy of Percy Aldon.

Ingrid Eggers:  I haven’t looked at it from that point of view but yes, maybe.  I know that in She Deserved It (Thomas Stiller) all the men are hopeless. In The Architect (Ina Weisse), even though he’s at the pinnacle of his career, his life is a complete mess and he is torn apart by women.  Alma Mahler in Mahler on the Couch (Percy and Felix Adlon) is a strong woman who used her sexuality to draw very intelligent men into her orbit. In Mountain Blood, (Philipp J. Pamer) the women stay at home while the men are fighting and you have two very strong women there—Katherina, the outsider, and Elisabeth, the mother, who embodies that type of suspicious insular mountain person. These women really run things.  And then too, in terms of the mix of female filmmakers in this festival, there are two.  I would not do a festival without women filmmakers.

In Germany today, who are the strongest female filmmakers?

Ingrid Eggers:  Doris Dörrie, Cherry Blossoms (Kirschblüte – Hanami) (2008), who was in San Francisco several times with Berlin and Beyond and Margarethe von Trotta, who made Vision (2008), about Hildegard von Bingen, at German Gems last year.  Both women are in their 50’s or 60’s.  There are many young German women who are maturing but not out there yet.  It’s a very long process to make it to the top because the industry is so dominated by men.  There are lots of women working in producing and at that range both here and in Germany; but directing and cinematography have been hard fields for women to really break into.    

What are your impressions of Philipp Pamer’s Mountain Blood?  I was mesmerized by its depth. I looked up this chapter in Tyrolean independence and he nailed it. 

Wolfgang Menardi and Ina Birkenfeld in MOUNTAIN BLOOD, directed by Philipp Pamer, photo courtesy of German Gems

Ingrid Eggers:  This is one of the most amazing and touching first feature graduation films. It’s a huge production, an epic drama set in 1809 in a small village in the Alps.  There’s a lot of autobiographical stuff in this film too because Philipp Pamer, grew up in that village and it’s very authentic with all the details, right down to the dialects.  There’s also the story and how it’s done.  There’s the couple and how they deal with the political unrest during the time that Napoleon took over Europe and remapped everything.  Oxburg, the home of young woman, Katharina, was a card in the Napoleonic Empire, as was South Tyrol, the home of her husband. 

The Tyrolean leader Andreas Hofer is also in the film but the focus is on the young couple.  The girl is an outsider and is not accepted.  This is very typical for this genre of mountain film. If you live in the mountains, you are cut off from the rest of the world. Within your little community, you become very suspicious of everything that comes from the outside.  She comes in and she doesn’t know what’s going on.  She doesn’t want to fight with anybody.  She starts to be accepted and then she does a major faux paus to keep her husband from fighting in the war from which there is no recovery.

What are your plans for German Gems? Are you hoping to expand it through collaboration with other festivals so that you can share the expenses of flying in more guests or of lengthening the festival?

Ingrid Eggers:  There is always the possibility to do co-presentations, which we are doing with Mahler on the Couch, but to merge with a festival and get money from them would mean you become a satellite. It would be a totally different story, like becoming “New Italian Cinema,” or “French Film Now.”  It’s a totally different way of organizing and a different relationship. You can collaborate but you don’t get real money unless you become part of them. My goal is not to turn this into a week-long festival but to leave it as weekend– two days plus a night– and see who will support this festival and how we can improve it in this format.  We’re very thankful to our sponsors–Maurice Kanbar, Barbro Osher and Kuehne + Nagel, the Bay Guardian and various local people and organizations. Last year we got money from a German foundation, Filmstiftung NRW, and that lasted for two years. 


Films in San Francisco, Castro Theatre Philipp Pamer’s Mountain Blood?  

Friday, January 14, 2011

7 pm  Mahler on the Couch (Mahler auf der Couch) followed by Opening Night Party

Saturday, January 15, 2011

2 pm Keep Surfing                                                                                                                                                                                                            4:30 pm Intern for Life (Ein Praktikant fürs Leben)
7 pm The Architect (Der Architekt)
9 pm She Deserved It (Sie hat es verdient)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

2 pm Celebration of Flight
4 pm David Wants to Fly 

6:30 pm Mountain Blood  (Bergblut)
9 pm Disenchantments (Entzauberungen), preceded by GÖMBÖC

Films in Point Arena, Arena Theatre

Saturday, January 22, 2011

2 pm Intern for Life (Ein Praktikant fürs Leben)
4 pm Keep Surfing
7:30 pm Mahler on the Couch (Mahler auf der Couch)

Details:  San Francisco: German Gems is at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street at Market, San Francisco from Friday through Sunday.  Tickets: $9-11 per screening, $20 opening night.  Purchase online at  Parking Alert: There is virtually no parking around the Castro Theatre.  Allow ample time to find a place to park and walk to the theatre.

January 12, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final Days: “Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens,” Asian Art Museum through Sunday, January 16, 2011

Flowering Cherry and Autumn Maples with Poem Slips, approx. 1654/81. By Tosa Mitsuoki (approx. 1617-1691). Pair of six-panel screens; ink, color, gold, and silver on silk. The Art Institute of Chicago, Kate S. Buckingham Endowment (1977.156-57)

Japanese folding screens have captured the imagination of the West since the 16th century when Europeans had their first glimpse of this expressive art form which combines functionality with painting, calligraphy, poetics and design.  Artists have realized their most expansive visions by working across their large flat surfaces with rare mineral pigments and precious gold and silver. Beyond Golden Clouds: Five Centuries of Japanese Screens , at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum presents forty-one rarely seen large scale Japanese screens dating from the 1500s through the present and closes this Sunday, January 16, 2011.  The exhibition celebrates the evolution of the folding screen, or byōbu (“wind wall”), from pre-modern to contemporary times, highlighting its distinctive position in Japanese culture as both a functional and expressive art form.  Initially created for the aristocracy and noble elite and later accessible to commoners, the art form has retained its special currency.  The rare screens on display are considered the masterpieces of the esteemed collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Saint Louis Art Museum who each contributed roughly half of the screens on display.  Unlike exhibitions of screens in the past, Beyond Golden Clouds includes a range of works from 16th century ink paintings to late 20th century installation works.  The phrase “Beyond Golden Clouds” describes one of the most popular motifs in classical screens, while also expressing the departure from conventional compositions and techniques in the past century.

Details: The Asian Art Museum is located 200 Larkin Street, at Civic Center in San Francisco. January hours: Tuesday- Sunday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Mondays. or (415) 581-3500.   Tickets: There is a $5.00 surcharge to the General Admission price to see “Beyond Golden Clouds.”

January 10, 2011 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Evvy Eisen’s OYSTER FARM exhibit opens today at Toby’s Feed Barn Point Reyes

The Oysterman. Photo by Evvy Eisen.

Acclaimed Point Reyes photographer Evvy Eisen is presenting her latest photographic essay – OYSTER FARM – through January 30 at Toby’s Feed Barn in Point Reyes.  Eisen, who specializes in environmental portraits, will attend the opening reception at 1:30 p.m.

 The exhibit of 60 silver gelatin portraits focuses on workers at the historic Drakes Bay Oyster Company, which is located on Drakes Estero in the Point Reyes National Seashore in western Marin County.  Currently the center of a land use controversy, the farm may not remain in operation after its lease ends in 2012.  While opposing positions that divide the Marin community have been argued at the state and national levels, Eisen’s exhibition does not deal with the complex issues involved in these disagreements.  She spent a year documenting the workers and the farm environment putting a human face on the issue.  She photographs in a classic portrait tradition – using a tripod mounted, medium format camera loaded with black and white film – and creates individual silver gelatin prints in the darkroom.  The exhibit is divided into three sections: portraits, photographs of the working farm and abstractions and still life compositions.

 Eisen often works on long term projects which reveal the people involved in socially relevant issues. She recently completed Multiply by Six Million, a 15-year project photographing Holocaust survivors in California and France.  The catalyst for this immersive project was a 1992 assignment she got to photograph four Holocaust survivors in conjunction with her son David’s eighth-grade Holocaust project.   The exhibit is available online through the California Exhibition Resources Alliance with portraits from the collection and a clip from the short documentary film she created, which has been shown on the Sundance Channel.

 Eisen was born in Brooklyn and educated in New York City. She has lived and worked in West Marin since 1971.  Her photographs have been shown in solo shows throughout California, and along with Michael Kenna’s work in 2005. She has taught photography and was a founding partner of the Darkroom in San Rafael.  Her work is in the permanent collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, the de Saisset Museum in Santa Clara, CA and the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine in Paris, France, as well as private collections in the US and France. 

Details:  Toby’s Feed Barn is located at 11250 Highway One, Point Reyes Station, CA  94956.  Hours: Monday- Saturday 9-5 and Sunday 10-5.  Phone: (415) 663-1223

OYSTER FARM will be at the Petaluma Arts Center from March 25, 2011 – May 15, 2011.

January 9, 2011 Posted by | Art | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meet the San Francisco Zoo’s new hippo: he’s from Topeka, weighs 1.5 tons and was Fed Ex’d

A new male hippopotamus from the Topeka Zoo made his debut at the San Francisco Zoo on Friday. Although the journey was long and he spent 45 hours in a crate, he was ready to meet his fans in the morning. Here, he enjoys a swim in his new outdoor pool. Photo: George Nikitin, SF Zoo

The San Francisco Zoo’s newest resident is a 3,700 male hippopotamus that arrived from the Topeka Zoo on Wednesday evening, January 5 and made his press debut on Friday.  Last August, the male hippo, named “Tucker” in Topeka, and his mate welcomed a new son at the Topeka Zoo.  But three hippos require quite a bit of room so the search began for a new home for the 8 year old adult male. The San Francisco Zoo hasn’t had a hippo since “Mama Cuddles,” its 46-year-old female Nile Hippo died three years ago.  After she passed, the zoo began a massive renovation of the hippo exhibit to create a pool three times larger and with a new dry land pasture area.  With a newly renovated space, operation hippo transfer began. Federal Express donated the shipment of the 3,700 pound hippo, and the San Francisco Department of Public Works transported him to the Zoo.

The hippo’s journey began at the Topeka Zoo where he was crated for his long trip then driven to Kansas City International Airport on a Westar Energy flatbed trailer and had an overnight stay in a warm building.  On Wednesday, FedEx Express flew him by cargo plane to its Memphis, Tenn., superhub, then to its hub at the Oakland Airport. Memphis-based FedEx Express is a subsidiary of FedEx Corp..  Zoo Assistant Curator Jim Nappi was on hand to greet him at the airport and feed him some welcoming apples.   Although the journey was long and he spent 45 hours in a crate, he gingerly backed out of the crate and into his night quarters and was ready to meet his fans in the morning.  To see the San Francisco Zoo’s footage of his uncrating and first swim, click here:

 The hippo’s public access will be limited until he adjusts to his new home. 

At its annual fundraiser on April 29, the Zoological Society will seek “parents” for the hippo who will have the honor of bestowing him with a name.

The San Francisco Zoo has no plans to breed the new hippo and reported that he will not be sharing his space with any other hippos either.   While hippos live in large groups called “pods,”  they are not social animals and sometimes become aggressive.  Tucker, however,  so far appears to be very mild-mannered.   The zoo also reported that it is unlikely that Tucker will miss his previous mate or offspring.  In the wild,  hippos breed and then go back to their day-to-day activites in the pod.  The male has no interaction with its offspring.   The San Francisco Zoo’s former hippos, Puddles and Cuddles became acclimated to each other over a long period of time.

The hippopotamus, whose hide alone can weigh half a ton, can reach up to 3.5 tons in weight and is the third-largest living land mammal, after elephants and white rhinos.  It can reach 13 feet long and 5 feet tall and has a lifespan of about 50 years.  It was considered a female deity of pregnancy in ancient Egypt, but in modern times is no longer found in Egypt because of the damage it inflicts on crops.  The hippo thrives in other parts of Africa.

Hippos move easily in water, either swimming by kicking their hind legs or walking on the bottom. They are well-adapted to their aquatic life, with small ears, eyes and nostrils set at the top of the head.  These senses are so keen that even submerged in water, the hippo is alert to its surroundings. By closing its ears and nostrils, the adult can stay under water for as long as six minutes.  The zoo’s new hippo has taken to his large new pool like a fish to water.

About the San Francisco Zoo Encompassing 100 acres, the historic San Francisco Zoo is Northern California’s largest zoological park. The Zoo is home to exotic and rescued animals from all over the world and is located across from the Pacific Ocean.  Winter Hours through March 12, 2011:  The Zoo is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. (last entry at 3:30 p.m.) and is located at 1 Zoo Road, San Francisco.  Tickets: from free to $15.00.  Phone (415) 753-7080 or visit  for more information.

January 8, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment