Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

A midwinter night's dream


San Francisco Ballet's 'Nutcracker' enthralls

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo: Erik Tomasson
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In 20 years of attending Nutcracker opening nights, I have never enjoyed one so thoroughly as this year's. It opened last Thursday night at the early hour of 7 p.m., with a fair number of empty seats that kept filling up well into the party scene. Latecomers were welcome, which seemed apt, indeed, to sum up the appeal of this show. After all, the most welcome guest at the Christmas party is Drosselmeyer, and he arrives late. He also can't blame it on the kids, because he doesn't have any. But he's the one with the kids most deeply on his mind, he's the heroine's bachelor-uncle (code for queer?), who made the Nutcracker for her.

If the audience was late, the dancers were ready, maybe because they'd sharpened it up for national broadcast, which was presented last night on KQED (out already as a DVD). Certainly they have never before been so sharp and clear and vibrant on opening night of Nutcracker - everybody, from the bottom to the top. The children were well-prepared, the party-guests were in character, all the business of lighting the tree and doing the old-fashioned dances and handing out the presents was handled like counterpoint in a fugue, so you could follow all the lines to completion and make them out distinctly. The grandparents did their little dance with a dignity and warmth that reminded me of my own grandmother dancing with Santa Claus 30 years ago. There were many social moments that added up to a feeling of Christmas. My favorite was Lily Rogers' fit of the vapors, which was etched so sharply I can still see it: "No, no, one second, just give me a second."

Surely my readers do not need to be told that Nutcracker starts out realistic and becomes hallucinatory – when the furniture swells up and the mice attack – and then dazzling, as the heroine and her Nutcracker enter the realm of snow and arrive in the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where all the delights of the world dance for her, and finally she gets to dance like a ballerina.

SFB's production gives full value to the fantasy. The furniture comes back giant-sized, atilt, transmogrified. The china-closet lets down a drawbridge from which soldiers come

Gennadi Nedvigin in San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo: Erik Tomasson
marching out to fight the Mice. The hunky, hairy-legged Rat King crawls up out of the prompter's box and dies falling back down into it. "Snow" is even more dazzling, with brilliant dancers cutting sharp figures amidst a blizzard of white flakes falling from the flies. The choreography is so exacting the dancers must be absolutely on-target to avoid collisions – it must be scary for them, but it's very exciting for us. The first-act curtain comes down on a stage ablaze with white light, truckloads of confetti whirling in the air, and the confident smile of the ballerina Yuan-Yuan Tan, who's opening out into an attitude that says, "This is all for you."

The second act is structurally weaker - it requires spectacular performances to make up for the sparse decor and the relatively threadbare choreography. Vanessa Zahorian triumphed over the Sugar Plum Fairy's dull steps by multiplying her pirouettes to a dizzying number. Other remarkable performances came from the Spanish Chocolate dancers Dores Andre and Frances Chung, the can-can marzipan girls Courtney Clarkson, Mariellen Olson, and Jennifer Stahl, and Matthew Stewart, suited up as the teddy bear who tumbles out of the skirts of Mother Ginger. The three Russian dancers who burst out of the Faberge eggs stopped the show, as always – they were Gennadi Nedvigin, Daniel Deivison, and Benjamin Stewart.

Everybody did well. The orchestra hit sour notes, but kept up a great dancing pulse. Jessica Cohen had a wonderful debut as Clara. Tina LeBlanc was brilliant, Joan Boada the perfect cavalier in the Grand Pas de Deux. And Ricardo Bustamante put heroic energy into Uncle Drosselmeyer – he seemed to be making the Christmas tree grow with his own body English, like Atlas lifting up the whole world of the show.

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