SF Ballet: Nutcracker – December 2022

NUTCRACKER: San Francisco Ballet
Choreography by Helgi Tomasson, December 8, 2022

It’s Holiday season and although Helgi Tomasson is no longer Artistic Director of the SF Ballet (he has been succeeded by Tamara Rojo), his production of “Nutcracker” is on stage.There are many stagings of “Nutcracker” around the world but it is a particular favorite with ballet companies in the United States. It is the holiday production that brings audiences in the the concert halls, theaters and opera houses to celebrate the season. It also produces revenue for those companies, revenues that provide year-long support.

The story of “Nutcracker” goes back to 1816, the work of a Prussian author, E.T.A. Hoffman. Young Marie Stahlbaum (age 7) has a favorite toy, a nutcracker, which comes alive and after defeating the evil Mouse King, he whisks her away to a magical kingdom populated by dolls. Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov turned Alexandre Dumas’ adaptions of the story into “The Nutcracker.” There’s lots more history and many adaptations; some on film and TV.

In 1944, on December 24, San Francisco Ballet artistic director Willam Christensen staged the first complete U.S. performance. The NYC Ballet gave its first annual performance of George Balanchine’s staging in 1954. There is a ballet legend that Balanchine and Christensen (with Alesandra Danilova) discussed the 1892 Russian version. Danilova wanted to show steps. Balanchine said: “No, no, Alexandra. Don’t show him the steps. Let him create his own choreography.” 20th century choreographers have done so ever since.

Tomasson’s “Nutcracker” is a very San Francisco show. The production starts with slides of SF scenes, bridges, waterways and neighborhoods. When the stage set appears it looks like a SF street. We meet Drosselmeyer (Tiit Helimets) preparing toys for the children at the Stahlbaums’s holiday party. We watch the family dance, adults and children. Ballet dancers do ‘longways sets’ and other familiar “square dance” figures, Clara, our leading lady, (Neva Chang) accepts an invitation to dance with her father.

We accept that this will be a ‘coming of age‘ story. Most charming are the “grandparents” (Jim Sohm, Kristi DeCaminada) whose dancing is most believable. Fritz, (Dominic Gurrea) Clara’s brother, provides the mischief. Drosselmeyer arrives with presents and the ‘magic’ begins. His special gifts to the children include a “jack-in-the-box” Punch like acrobat (Alexis Valdes) who gives us the first dramatic ‘character’ dance of the show. The ballerina doll (Lonnie Weeks) dances beautifully. Finally the “Nutcracker” toy is presented, Clara falls asleep holding it and Drosselemeyer returns to bring her dream. After the magic of the Xmas tree growing and the set changing, we meet the Nutcracker, now turned soldier, confronting an army of mice and the Mouse King.

(This reviewer has often wondered why a Xmas dream includes this battle, complete with swords and a cannon. I suppose Prussian homes had mice.)

Clara assists the Nutcracker’s victory as the Mouse King, (Alexander Reneff-Olson) defeated, slides down head first into the orchestra pit! And Voila! The Nutcracker is now a Prince! ((Joseph Walsh). To bring back Xmas, the Queen and King of Snow (Yuan-Yuan Tan and Henry Sidford) offer a delightfully skilled “pas de duex” as the stage snow falls on the “Snowflake” corps. A magic sled pulled by dancers with wonderful “crystal” horse masks take Clara and her Prince to Act 2 adventures.

We are no longer in San Francisco.

Act 2 brings a continual series of “divertissement”. After the well executed ‘mime’ telling the story of the battle (clearly simply, done by Walsh), we meet the Sugar Plum Fairy, (Nikisha Fogo). Fogo danced the part last year: she has been absent until this time. Here she is again, a superbly skilled dancer who we hope to see in the 2023 repertory. For entertainment we get a Spanish dance, an Arabian genie, “whirling” acrobats from China and French ‘fluttery’ ribbon girls. Best of all is a simulation of the San Francisco Chinese New Year parade, complete with a dragon banner! Madame du Cirque (Louis Schilling), sometimes known as Mother Goose, provides a huge tent for the smallest children of the evening plus a dancing bear (Lleyton Ho) who deserves endless applause).

The Sugar Plum Fairy dances with her court of Flowers as (apparently) Clara is transformed into a ballerina to dance the final “pas de deux” Actually (since it takes at least 15 minutes even to tie toe shoes) Lisa Kuranaga and Joseph Walsh dance the Grand Pas de Deux. They are excellent! Curtain calls follow as children’s parents rush up the aisles to claim the children from backstage.(We met one young parent who had brought is 7 month old to the show! He said “he/she loved it”!

The 2022 Nutcracker is here! Performances continue through December 27, 2022. It is a joyous occasion and a fit finale for a difficult year for performers and audiences. The cast for this opening seemed a bit nervous (I assume many were new), needing confidence to project the dramatic aspects of the event. Upstage right and left seemed a bit empty: perhaps as the season continues, movement, drama and joy will expand.

Credit and applause, as always, to the San Francisco Orchestra, Martin West, Director.