A Treasured Tradition: San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker”
From the moment the house staff opened the doors to the War Memorial Opera House on Nutcracker opening night, audience members were surrounded by a sense of event. Giant wreaths and garlands, Christmas lights, and a tree decorated with Nutcracker-themed ornaments filled the entry with holiday cheer. As this was one of the six special “family” performances, costumed characters from the ballet posed with children dressed in their party best. This was a truly special occasion — and that was even before the performance began.
It’s a Family Thing
On Christmas Eve 1944, the San Francisco Ballet began a much-loved holiday tradition by presenting the first complete version of the Nutcracker in the United States. Over 60 years later, audiences throughout the country flock to the seasonal ballet, attending Nutcrackers that range from small community companies to the elaborate extravaganzas seen in major cities like Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York.
For sheer production values, though, the San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker remains at the top of the list. The latest incarnation of the classic, choreographed by SFB Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, debuted in 2004. It shifts the focus from the nineteenth-century Biedermeier period seen in past productions and brings the story forward to Edwardian San Francisco during the time of the Panama Pacific International Exhibition. Capitalizing on the distinctive architecture of the city, Tomasson has presented a Nutcracker that is uniquely San Francisco.
Featuring scenic design by Michael Yeargan, projection design by Wendall K. Harrington, lighting design by James F. Ingalls, and costume design by Tony Award winner Martin Pakledinaz, the production is beautiful to look at. As grand as it is, though, the production has kept its heart. It’s still a family party — one that the audience is invited to each year.
After the initial Magic Lantern show of historical San Francisco images, introduction of clock and toymaker Drosselmeyer, and partygoers heading to the Stahlbaum house, the curtains part to reveal an upper-middle-class living room decked out for the holidays. Guests arrive, children get gifts, and Drosselmeyer performs magic tricks. Portrayed by Damian Smith, this Drosselmeyer is a clever and kindly “uncle,” not at all scary or mysterious, which works in the party scene, but does not explain his controlling presence in Clara’s later dream.
He then gives a Nutcracker doll to Clara, a charming and secure Elise Gillum, who fights with her brother over the toy. The doll breaks, Drosselmeyer patches it, everybody dances, the guests go home, and all say goodnight. Fast and tight.
The speed is the result of Tomasson choosing to eliminate a number of the score’s repeats. While this propels the action, it consequently lessens any sense of character development — especially the potentially fun byplay between Anita Paciotti as the grandmother and the progressively more tipsy grandfather of Jim Sohm. Their interactions are so abbreviated that the characters almost get lost in the general party melee. The minor scuffle between the boys and girls suffers the same fate.
Later in the evening, Clara comes back downstairs to check on her Nutcracker and falls asleep. In her dream, Drosselmeyer, appears and transforms the house — the toys, the furniture, even the tree grow to gigantic size. With his cloak and Odin-esque eyepatch, he takes control and leads Clara on an internal voyage that explores her dreams, fears, and fantasies.
Her journey begins with a battle between giant threatening mice and life-sized toy soldiers led by the Nutcracker. When the company is on target, the fight scene is loads of fun with its shivering mice, serious soldiers, and real cannon. Opening night saw gaps in the spacing and missed marks that made the action all a muddle. In addition, the death of the Mouse King, ably played by Gaetano Amico, is extremely fast. One, two, three, into the mousetrap (a curious addition to this production), and Mr. Mouse King perfunctorily pops down the trap door. No comic relief shtick, no mourning mice.
Drosselmeyer then transforms the Nutcracker into Clara’s dream Prince, played by Taras Domitro, whose astounding elevation, clean technique, and eloquent phrasing elicited oohs and aahs from the appreciative audience.
At this point, the action freezes while the audience waits for the noticeable disappearance of the set pieces and the large tree. A quick blackening, then BANG! A door opens with a flash of light, and here comes the King and Queen of the Snow in a carriage pulled by exotic white horses. A great shot, but it’s as if the designers became hooked on the image of the moment and lost sight of the magic that can be made through a seamless, invisible transition into the Land of Snow.
The orchestra, conducted by Martin West, began a bit under-muscled, but picked up speed by the Snow Scene. Unfortunately, the women’s chorus has been replaced by a recording, which lacks the power and sweep of live singers.
All was forgiven though when Snow Queen Yuan Yuan Tan and her Snow King, new principal Artem Yachmennikov, stepped from the carriage. Yachmennikov matched Tan’s eloquent line, and the two made the most of Tchaikovsky’s sensual music. The Snowflake corps, after a bit of a rocky start, got into the swing of things, whirling across the stage to close Act I.
Butterflies, Ladybugs, and Dragonflies opened the second act, leading the way for Sugar Plum Fairy Lorena Feijoo to welcome Clara and her Prince. Gracious and emotive, Feijoo’s Sugar Plum was an engaged listener and brought the entire ensemble along for the ride.
The character dances that followed demonstrated that the corps dancers at SFB would most likely be soloists or even principals in many other companies. Of special note were the women in the French divertissement — Kristina Lind, Mariellen Olson, and Jennifer Stahl — who coordinated the ribbons with precision while executing the difficult choreography. As always, the Russian dance was a hit. Pascal Molat with Daniel Baker and Benjamin Stewart leaped and twirled through the Anatole Vilzak dance, eliciting gasps and shouts from the appreciative audience.
Perhaps it was a timing glitch or an inherent part of the lighting design, but the Act II hanging set pieces often caused unattractive shadows to fall on the soloists’ faces.
Just before the Grand Pas de Deux, dream logic takes over, and Clara is transformed into an adult version of herself. The adult Clara, danced by Vanessa Zahorian in a sumptuous golden costume, steps from a cabinet to be met by the Nutcracker Prince. Known for her secure technical feats, it was good to see Zahorian strike a warm and generous tone for this role. Both she and Domitro soared through their respective solos, thrilling the opening night crowd with his leaps and her balances.
Performances run from December 9 through December 27 with matinees scheduled for most days; running time is two hours. For further information and to buy tickets, see www.sfballet.org or phone 415.865.2000. This is a popular production, so think about reserving your tickets in advance, especially on the weekend.