Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Spirits of Christmas past


San Francisco Ballet's 'Nutcracker' returns

San Francisco Ballet dancers Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)
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The nation's oldest Nutcracker came out of the mothballs at the Opera House last Friday night for a new round of Christmas performances, and the old girl's looking very well indeed. The show runs through Tues., Dec. 27. The Nutcracker was exceptionally well danced by everyone, especially the Sugar Plum Fairy, Frances Chung, whose gracious high spirits, backed by thrillingly solid technique, revealed the heart of this noble music and made us love it all over again.

San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker has held the stage for almost 70 years now, going through many redactions since it was first performed during World War II, when it showed a vision of everything Americans held closest to our hearts, everything that the soldiers were fighting to save. It was "I'll be home for Christmas" turned into a two-hour drama, seen from a sparkling point of view.

Tchaikovsky's music is backward-looking, drenched in homesickness – it's no accident that Tchaikovsky was gay, that his vision is so emotional, idealized, romanticized, poignantly nostalgic, with delicate memories of the tree, the foods, the grandparents, the slightly scary, wizardly old bachelor-uncle, the excitement. Within the story, the point of view is a little girl's: how a quarrel at the Christmas party with her bratty brother, who grabs her favorite Christmas present (her Nutcracker doll, made for her by her queer uncle) and breaks it, is resolved in her dreams and turns into an escape from the family imbroglio into a dazzling second-act world of freedom and importance.

Despite the proliferation of Nutcracker s everywhere (Christmas is full-employment time for dancers), Nutcracker is a spectacle that only an opera house can present properly. It is a major piece of theatrical engineering, Lucasfilm-scale, the forerunner of today's CGI fantasy-films. Big stage magic is required for the phantasmagoria that shows us Clara's dream, when after the party's over suddenly the furniture becomes giant-size, her Nutcracker grows big, indeed comes to life and saves her life from the monstrous rats that suddenly burst out of every crevice and threaten her. SF Ballet's latest production (new in 2004) outdoes anything I know of anywhere in creating the hallucinogenic, "Go ask Alice" effects, when the Christmas tree starts to grow, the dining-room furniture becomes huge and distorted, the breakfront lowers a drawbridge and tin soldiers come marching out into battle with the giant creepy mice. It was designed by the internationally distinguished team of Michael Yeargan (sets) and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes), cost a bundle, and is totally worth it.

San Francisco Ballet character dancer Val Caniparoli in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

It's true, this ballet can survive small-stage productions, since its charm depends on miniaturization and the story is a girl's. Therefore the recital-sized versions that abound at this season can yield major satisfactions – especially if you know the children involved, who may well be fine young dancers. Their skills and delight can make up some for the loss of the special effects that trap-doors, stage fog, furniture that grows and moves create. But for the full effect, you really have to be in the opera house when the stage is whirling with snow, dancers are spinning, darting, leaping through it, with amazing boldness and clarity of intention (and not falling and not losing their place). The deepest pleasure that ballet has to offer may be the spectacle of people so alert, so confident, so amazingly in control of what they're doing that they can rush about at blinding speeds, like snow in the wind, precisely, and nobody gets hurt.

There is a problem with our Nutcracker – the story itself is weakly told, and the choreography is insufficiently fantastic. It matters little that it's been reset in San Francisco. Aside from a brilliant scene in Uncle Drosselmeyer's shop, where we see him (the excellent Val Caniparoli) putting the last screws into the Nutcracker before leaving for the party, plot points of the story are handled slip-shod. The staging too often leaves the music to carry the action forward.

It's SFB's dancers, who are among the best in the world, who made it all make sense. All praise to them: parents, children, grandparents, servants in the party scene, especially Luke Willis and Quinn Wharton as fathers, Anita Paciotti as the grandmother, Pascale Leroy as Clara's mother, and Nicole Finken, our child-heroine, created likeable, plausible people and projected these characters well out into the house. Clara Blanco was especially fantastic as Drosselmeyer's toy ballerina doll, who performs as one of his magic tricks at the party: you could almost hear her joints click into place.

The young men of the SFB School, with their big legs, made wonderfully menacing rats. Daniel Deivison, especially creepy as the rat king, died spectacularly when Clara summoned her courage and attacked to save her Nutcracker (SFB's outstanding classicist Gennadi Nedvigin). Said rat disappeared back into the hell he came from, down the prompter's box.

San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

It would be impossible to exaggerate the vertiginous skill displayed by the whole corps de ballet in the snow scene. The choreography here is strong – the web of trajectories is intricate, many paths are curved, dancers often dart directly towards each other. Adrenaline levels in the audience go through the roof as the confetti-snow falls heavier, the light gets blindingly bright, and the dancers keep taking these daredevil risks. Standouts among these brilliant creatures were Nicole Ciapponi, Clara Blanco, and the radiant Sasha deSola – not to mention the King and Queen of the Snow (Davit Karapetyan, Vanessa Zahorian), whose feats were sharply etched and surpassingly difficult.

The second act is pure celebrations – the Sugar Plum Fairy welcomes Clara and celebrates her victory over the mice by having embassies from the four corners of the world dance for her: Spanish, Arabian, French, dances follow one another quickly, all sharply characterized. The corps dancer Lonnie Weeks was astonishing as the Chinese acrobat chased by a dragon; again, it was more than technique – his timing was stunningly accurate. The crowd's favorite was probably the trepak of Russian dancers who burst out of Faberge eggs, spun, leaped and doffed their hats, and spun and leaped some more, in choreography by the late great Anatole Vilzak, retained from the last production. The dancers were Pascal Molat, Daniel Baker and Benjamin Stewart.

Or perhaps it's the kids and the teddy bear (Matthew Stewart) who pour out of the giant skirts of Mother Ginger: my colleague at the NY Post Leigh Witchell, who flew into town to see it, quipped, "Of course, a drag queen and a bear, this must be San Francisco."

Sasha deSola again lit up her role in the Waltz of the Flowers, while Frances Chung soared over all difficulties as the Sugar Plum Fairy. The evening closed with an immaculate performance of the Grand Pas by Maria Kochetkova, the tiny, Russian-born, Bolshoi-trained great-hearted ballerina who came to SF several years back and has made herself a star here in record time. Her variation ends with a diagonal line of sharp-cut steps that sprang to pointe and streaked back upstage like diamonds in a bracelet. She and Gennadi Nedvigin, her cavalier, are well-matched in figure, training, temperament, and style.

The evening ends strong on a note of homecoming – the scene transforms again to the Stahlbaum house, Clara wakens from her dream as her mother comes downstairs to check up on her, and the curtain falls as they meet in the middle of the grand staircase and embrace.

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