Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Nutcracker, now and forever


San Francisco Ballet first staged the holiday perennial

Scene from San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo: Erik Tomasson

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Such a lot of talent. What wonderful dancers. It's a long, long time from May to December — from May, when the ballet season ends, till December, when the dancers reappear, a little flustered but eager, in their really big show, The Nutcracker, which began this year's run last Thursday, Dec. 13, and continues through Dec. 30. Nutcracker is the company's bread-and-butter. They'll be dancing it morning, afternoon, and evenings, and taking little bits of it to hospitals and shut-ins, in the spirit of the holidays.

Nutcracker is, of course, a Christmas spectacular. Although the show is, in theory, a miniature, about childhood, it's actually a colossal production, as intricately engineered as a Mercedes Benz — what with scenery, costumes, lighting effects, a full orchestra, dancers galore. And that's before we get to the special effects. The Christmas tree grows to fill the whole stage, the furniture similarly undergoes hallucinatory enlargement, and the sideboard opens to release toy soldiers who march down a drawbridge into battle with human-sized mice. Then there's a blizzard with a continuous snowfall for a good 10 minutes with dancers in pointe shoes executing thrillingly exact, sharp steps right past each other. That's just to mention a few.

So opening night is always a little blurry, with all the performers being a little careful to stay out of the way of the machinery. When the first-act curtain comes down, with the Snow Queen opening into her grandest, most winning attitudes amidst her whole court and surrounded by thousands of trembling snowflakes filling the entire stage picture, it's always a triumph, achieved with some breathlessness, a sense of amazement that they pulled all that off without anybody getting hurt.

It's usually about a week into the show before the individual performances begin to glow with a uniform, happy polish. What was remarkable at this year's opening was how many performances were already fully detailed and radiant. All of the principals were very fine, from the realistic parents and the teenage heroine (Val Caniparoli, Pascale Leroy, young Lacey Escobar) and their magic-working friend Drosselmeyer (magnificently realized by Damian Smith, who made his magic scarves and canes dance as if they had a life of their own), to the fantasy-figures, the Snow Queen (Sarah van Patten) and the Sugar Plum Fairy (Rachel Viselli), and the idealized pure-dance figures who perform the grand pas de deux (Davit Karapetyan, Maria Kochetkova).

San Francisco Ballet is now a major dance company on the world stage — not one of the big five, but still, the company has gone from being a major provincial company to being a ballet of international standing. From the beginning, it's been fortunate to be based in a city that wanted lyric theater on a grand scale. Indeed, San Francisco had the first complete production of The Nutcracker in the country. That first production, by Willam Christensen, opened here at the Opera House in December, 1944.

The production we see now, by SFB Director Helgi Tomasson incorporating bits of previous productions (for old times' sake), is three years old. The best things about it are the spectacular scenic effects, especially in the nightmare scene, where the furniture itself gets into the act and moves around the stage to tremendous effect. On repeated viewings, however, the choreography looks, in places, less effective.


The dancing itself is all one could ask for. The rag doll, spectacularly realized by Rory Hohenstein, is turning three, sometimes four pirouettes as if it were nothing, then flopping down into the splits as if he were stuffed with cotton. The snowflakes turn on a dime, change directions with arrowy assurance, and whip this way and that in complex figurations without ever making us fear they're going to slip on all that stuff on the floor. We can go along for the ride and know that however tricky it gets, we'll come down safe.

Particularly wonderful performers on opening night were Lily Rogers as a party guest, Pascal Molat as the Chinese acrobat, and the three men in Anatole Vilzak's Russian trepak who jump out of Faberge eggs, then just tear up the stage (Garrett Anderson, Matthew Stewart, Daniel Deivison).

But the staging seems sometimes to miss big events that the music tells us are happening. With a classic, that becomes a problem. These threadbare patches need some embroidery. The choreography itself, the movement design, which ought to tell the story cogently and break your heart at moments with its poignancy, is still sketchy, a vague wash that has not been given the finishing touches. In the party scene, there is too often a general hubbub; the choreographer has not directed our eye to big events. When the music clearly says "new characters are arriving at the party," nothing remarkable occurs. When Clara is given a toy kiosk, which will become a big deal later in the story, there is no clearing in the crowd.

The first order of business should be finding something more appropriate for the Sugar Plum Fairy to do. This production takes her music and gives it to Clara (who's been magically transformed from a teenage girl into a ballerina). That's fine, and the grand pas is very nice. But in the meantime, what's a Sugar-Plum Fairy to do? So they've thrown her in with the Flowers, whose orange costumes clash with her pink one, and given her no dancing of any majesty or point.

The best reason to go to this Nutcracker is to see the dancers: Maria Kochetkova, new to the company and the featured ballerina on opening night, is a marvelous creature one wants to see more of. I was impressed by her ability to do small-scale work with great accuracy and clarity, then to open up a phrase so that a sequence of sharp, cut-glass steps swept uninterruptedly along the diagonal all the way across the stage. To be able to do things so small that are simultaneously so large is big stage magic, and completely appropriate to The Nutcracker.

By now, the dancers will have taken over the show and filled in its inconsistencies so valiantly you'll hardly be able to detect them.

San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker. Choreography: Helgi Tomasson. Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan. Costume Design: Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls. Projection Design: Wendall K. Harrington.

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