When Life Hands you a Nutcracker, Make (lots of) Snow!
Helgi Tommason’s restaging of The Nutcracker in the image of turn-of-the-last century San Francisco has created a pageant version, where most of the icons are on parade, but the storyline can suddenly lurch off-script in this tale of Clara, a girl who leaves childhood behind on a Christmas Eve, when the traditional party her parents host provides the material for a dream in which larger than life characters take up residence within and amid the furniture of her parents’ sumptuous Edwardian home.
Now in its ninth year, one finds it pleasant still to read the screened message that greets audiences. It says, “Compliments of the Season, the old, old greeting, kind and true.” In the midst of complaints (and not all of them issuing from the Christian right) that Christ has gone out of Christmas, it is reassuring to recall that no one seemed to object to the “Season’s Greetings” salutation of decades’ back. Projected images from the San Francisco Public Library History Room show the “Jewel City,” circa 1915, with flower-filled carts, horse-drawn street cars, and finally, the Market Street façade of Drosselmeyer’s Fine Clocks shop, where the curtain opens on Uncle Drosselmeyer, played amiably by Ricardo Bustamante, tending store, in the first of his ubiquitous appearances throughout the ballet.
Not present on this Market Street are the Chinese immigrants who came to build the railroads, nor Black San Franciscans who migrated from Texas and Louisiana after the Civil War. In this version, there is no Chestnut Lady, but instead a woman selling flowers, nurses walking babies in their prams, and others in the service of the wealthy, who on Christmas Eve do not join in the festivities, but instead labor in the streets and alleys to make deliveries to those whose income renders them comfortable enough to make merry.
The party scene at the Stahlbaum’s poses the first of several problems, large, medium and small, with this production. Its now-ordered, now-chaotic tempo suffers from an absence of discreet dramatic beats. Were they there, they would underscore the important events which in an understated way are supposed to import themselves into Clara’s dream in the second half of Act I, streaming content for the mimed recounting of his heroism by the Nutcracker Prince. Without that information cascade, the drama flattens, and the audience is unprepared for what is to come. One can still enjoy the costumes and dancing—and the sets where there are sets—but the dramaturgy stops short of bringing us on board for Clara’s somnambulant journey.
To make matters worse, when at last the prince reaches the point of heatedly miming his story, the orchestra has slowed, and so there is no accompanying urgency in the music. It looks as if the prince is playing a very trying game of charades rather than relating a tale of derring-do. And the Sugar Plum Fairy, to whom he tells the story, has been given little else to do besides be a good listener, and so it is as if the ballet has suffered a fatal interruption.
The first step in stopping this train wreck would be to shape the party scene into something more discernible. Drosselmeyer’s entrance should be a dramatic moment instead of the unceremonious one that it is. It shouldn’t compete with foreshadowing Fritz’s anti-social leanings or Grandpa’s escalating inebriation. Instead of whipping out a small nutcracker that Drosselmeyer later makes big, the nutcracker should be at least as dramatic in its appearance as Drosselmeyer himself, so that the child from Pacific Heights in the third row, dressed in velvet togs from a Sacramento Street boutique, isn’t tempted to think, “Big deal—I’ve got a better nutcracker at home!” We would prefer that he or she “ooh” and “aah” at this moment, but that requires some forethought and attention to the libretto.
The children in the party scene have an opportunity to learn from Jorge Esquivel, known for having partnered Alicia Alonso in Cuba for two decades. He dances the role of Grandfather, and students should notice how fastidious he is about his preparations and aim to emulate him. A certain critic in the audience yelled “Bravo!” after his performance with Anita Paciotti of the Grandparents Dance. The party scene is rescued not only by Esquivel, but the Dancing Dolls. First out of the box is Myles Thatcher as the Pierrot or Harlequin doll. His bridged splits on the floor contrast sharply with the mincing steps of the party guests. Elizabeth Powell was put in for Dores André as the Dancing Doll, and she is a marvelously tall and limber one, who delivers bourrées that bounce ever so slightly, as if she has foam rubber in her joints, smiling all the while as if she knows everyone’s’ fantasies and secrets.
As Clara, San Francisco Ballet School student Charlotte Ogden-Moore comes into her own in the second half of the first act as she sets the stage for her dream. Drosselmeyer reappears as a kind of benevolent Rothbart, making more small things large—this time the Christmas tree, which grows and brightens, and the furniture and fireplace surrounding it. Perhaps the best improvement in this Nutcracker over its predecessor is the Battle of the Soldiers and Mice. The mice climb out from behind the now-engorged gifts under the Christmas tree, and soldiers march out of a cabinet. While their encounter is low tech (no drones!) and light weight, the Mouse King’s death by virtue of a mousetrap dragged in by a soldier, and his momentary reprieve when he escapes from it, is now improved by having him fall into the orchestra pit where he suffers his death agony. The Nutcracker, injured during the party scene, and repaired by Drosselmeyer, was placed on the hearth. The heat (or something) from the fireplace has caused him to grow, and become more intriguing, because he looks as if Maurice Sendak designed him. When Drosselmeyer strips him of his outerwear, the Jaime Garcia Castilla whom we see, looks relieved, as if to say, “Man, it sure is stuffy inside that costume!”
Here is where the story line jumps the track. The Snow Queen who we usually see with her King—the couple that dances the Grand Pas de Deux at the close of the ballet, enters here. She and her King dance the Snow pas de deux, and Koto Ishihara, partnered by the ever-gallant Gennadi Nedvigin is a real sparkler! Her timing, technique and bravura come together in lifted split jetés that boost performance quality to the brim. The Snowflake corps dancers piqué about her with arms in low fifth or second and hands extended brightly. Once again this year, there is a surfeit of snow, and you feel for the dancers who have to squint their way through the avalanche. By now, the pungent odor of children’s fruit candy that smells oddly similar to baby poop suffuses the theater. It can’t be because we’ve arrived in the Land of the Sweets because there is no such land mass in this production. “What???” you exclaim. Yes. No, there is none.
Act II takes us instead to San Francisco’s famous Golden Gate Park Arboretum, or a reduced version of its greenhouse glassed in set from earlier iterations. There, ballet-student bugs and flowers dressed in Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes of amaryllis reds, verdant greens and goldenrod yellows, assemble to cross-pollinate, utilizing no boys and minimal, though not minimalist choreography. They also surround the Sugar Plum Fairy, danced this night by Courtney Elizabeth, also given a minimum number of steps and bare bones combinations with which to scatter her fairy dust. There is another flaw here. It may arise from deciding to not have the Sugar Plum Fairy dance the Sugar Plum variation, and instead give her what used to be the soloist music in Waltz of the Flowers, but by now I am so confused that I need something on the order of Google Earth to account for what has gone missing.
I do see for the first time how pale Elizabeth can be made to look by lighting her too brightly and dressing her in what looks like a faded, washed out, though otherwise lushly designed tutu. It needs several hours in a dye bath. She should stand out among the flowers, but the sum total of all these linear, misbegotten effects has everything going in the opposite direction, burying her in other dancers’ colors. She seems to be struggling to be visible among student dancers who, with their “developing” technique, swarm about her unrestrained, with Drosselmeyer thrown in for good measure. It is an unenviable role in the way that it has been created for this version.
I want to like it because the arboretum idea is appealing, and the more elaborate set from nine years ago, with the black lace butterflies and glass panels descending from above created an otherworldly setting, but what counts is what one fills it with, and I’d honestly rather see the Sugar Plum Fairy dance to her own variation, the flowers be flowers and have soloists dance their flower solos. That preference is high on my list of seasonal wishes.
This brings us to another problem. Instead of the Land of the Sweets backdrop for the Act II divertissements, there is the stage, empty of sets, with only the hanging Arboretum appurtenances above. It feels as if the Land of the Sweets has been looted, and the dancers forced to perform on a cold, empty set. It diminishes the excitement, with the dances rolled out unobserved by the Royal Court. The Spanish variation jump starts the divertissements with a rousing quintet of Ellen Rose Hummel, Alexandra McCullagh, Diego Cruz, James Sofranko and Francisco Mungamba. Kimberly Braylock delivers a sultry Arabian, her eyes mysterious as her glances linger with each undulation. Her partners, Sean Bennett and Alexander Reneff-Olson turn the group into a finely profiled threesome. Wei Wang leads the Chinese Lion Dance with limpid jumps and turns. He is one to watch! French with its burlesque curlicues is danced smartly by Dores André, Sasha DeSola and Dana Genshaft. Russian is always a hit because the three dancers jump through three screen designs of a Russian Easter egg. Madame de Cirque and her Buffoons has replaced Mother Ginger, and is an absurd divertissement from start to finish, with Madame draped in bunting, lifting her skirt salaciously, as children in cow-spotted costumes run out from underneath and jump up and down rhythmically while a (California) bear emerges doing gross off-balance arabesques.
The Grand Pas de Deux, like the Snow Pas, is emblematically representative of the traditional Nutcracker in its grandeur, classicism, theatricality and technique. This evening, Jaime García Castilla partners Clara Blanco. Their costumes are of antique green and yellow gold, colors reminiscent of the post cards showing interiors of Russian museums housing imperial treasures. Blanco is one of those rare short dancers who doesn’t strain against her height in order to appear taller. Her grandeur is found in her exquisite gesture, alertness, sparkling eyes, economy of motion, focus on the music and her partner. She and Castilla lock eyes as punctuation to a fouetté arabesque. Her arms caress the air, descending upon it as if there was a cloud on each side of her. The tiniest bourrée carries with it its own passport, to step through a larger portal, perfectly spaced, light and swift. Her glance is a queenly hair’s breadth away from smoldering, as she smiles confidently at her partner. In the Sugar Plum variation she raises just an eyebrow to signal a change of direction, and it is as important as the more difficult shift to a step back in detailing the xylophone crescendo that identifies this music as belonging to Tchaikovsky and his Nutcracker Suite. She and Garcia Castilla place the official seal of the season on tonight’s show, ending it on a celestial note.
San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker performances continue through December 28. For ticket information, click on sfballet.org.
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.