Arts & Culture » Dance

A Tale of Two Nutcrackers

by Paul Parish

San Francisco Ballet dancer Esteban Hernandez is the Russian who springs out of the Faberge egg in Helgi Tomasson's "Nutcracker."
San Francisco Ballet dancer Esteban Hernandez is the Russian who springs out of the Faberge egg in Helgi Tomasson's "Nutcracker."  (Source:Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet's "Nutcracker," which is the longest-running complete production of this ballet a' grand spectacle in the country (debut 1944), opened its umpteenth annual run last week at the Opera House. Opening night had a packed house, with a great number of children in the audience, who could be seen during the intermission twirling on the staircases, caught up in the dream. The show runs through New Year's Eve, and I recommend it.

There are four great things about our "Nutcracker": a) the dancers, who are among the finest artists in the country; b) Tchaikovsky's wonderful music, and SF Ballet's splendid orchestra; c) the look of the show, especially the "Victorian" house in San Francisco that forms the setting of the first act. OK, there is a fourth: our Opera House itself is an architectural poem in its own right, and before the overture begins the golden auditorium creates expectations that wonderful visions are going to rise before us. The stereopticon images of "old San Francisco" that flash on the screen as the music begins set you up to fall into the hopes and fears of a little girl growing up in the city that has just survived an earthquake. This brings home the theme of new life beginning at the darkest of times.

There's the Christmas party itself, which evokes in me nostalgia for a kind of family-centered culture, with rafts of cousins you barely know, distant aunts you've only heard of, and the queer uncle who's fascinatingly eccentric and echoes the way a gay boy like me could hope to function in the family economy. Now that gay marriage is an accepted fact in our culture, this dimension, which used to be problematic, has become poignant and sweet. In SFB's production, Uncle Drosselmeyer, wonderfully realized in Ruben Martin Cintas' performance, is clearly one of us, the brilliant member of the family, the guy with the imagination who can make magic happen, and whose investment in the education of the young brings about wonderful changes. It doesn't matter that Cintas is not gay; he sees into the life of things, as Drosselmeyer must. In my book, he's an honorary queer.

The Christmas party is too exciting for the kids, of course, and Clara (Olivia Callender) must see her new toy broken by her rowdy brother, Fritz (brilliant Shane Wexelman), who (poor boy) can't contain himself with all these grown-ups around, Everybody dances! The kids all get presents! The Grandparents (Kristi de Caminada and Jim Sohm, excellent) dance! And the smallest child, a little girl (uncredited student at SFB school), steals the show. Then everybody goes home to bed, and Clara, who's overexcited and can't sleep, comes downstairs to check on her "wounded" Nutcracker, and "Alice in Wonderland" transmogrifications begin. This is the kind of thing that requires the technology of an opera house. Suddenly her world grows gigantic and menacing, the tree towers 40 feet high, huge mice spring out from among the Christmas presents, and war ensues. The dining-room cabinet lets down a drawbridge full of tin soldiers who come to her defense, led by her Nutcracker doll (fabulous premier danseur Joseph Walsh), whom she then has to rescue by distracting the Rat King (John-Paul Simoens) and braining him. Whereupon at last everything changes, a snowfall-like powdered sugar envelops everything, and the blizzard itself dances for her (Snow Queen: Frances Chung, glorious in the role; Snow King: Vitor Luiz) as she makes her way with her Nutcracker to Confituerenburg, the Land of the Sugar-Plum Fairy. The first-act curtain falls, leaving you breathless.

All through the show, SFB's superb dancers put an extra gloss on things. Among the shining characters, Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh danced the tricky grand pas grandly. Lonnie Weeks made a fabulous splash as the scintillating Chinese acrobat, as did Esteban Hernandez as the Russian who sprang out of the Faberge egg, in the only really superb choreography in the whole show (ch: Anatole Vilzak).

They did all they could to buff up a show whose choreography is unfortunately dull, and in key places threadbare. The new-concept production (new in 1994) required new sets and costumes, new machinery that would accommodate the transformations, all kinds of restagings of the traditional material. Since the sets themselves move around, the choreography for the dancers was skimped on, and has never been updated.

If you've never seen it, the immediate impact of all the scenery is a must-see. But the storytelling is muddled. The party scene is a blur; likewise, the Waltz of the Flowers lacks shape. Fortunately, the ballerina Sasha de Sola transfigured her humdrum choreography and made a thrilling set of dances out of it all, put it over the top.

Much depends on the grand ballerina who will dance the grand pas. This is the most important and most difficult magic of all, since she replaces the child dancer who played Clara but must seem to be an avatar of our heroine. We must feel that the soul of the child is still there in the dancer in pointe shoes, or else it's just a display of fancy footwork and finery. Maria Kochetkova, though she's a magnificent dancer and world famous, did not bring the goods that night. But she certainly did all her tricks just fine, and was magnificent when she threw herself at her cavalier and suddenly appeared serene and glorious, sitting on his shoulder facing us. It's not an easy trick, and she killed it.


Another Gay Uncle

Across the Bay, Mark Morris' wonderful "The Hard Nut" opened in Zellerbach Hall and also runs through New Year's Eve. His burlesque of The Nutcracker is actually a great version. If you can, see both. SFB's version was created in the wake of Morris', with designs by the same team: Martin Pakledinaz (costumes), James Ingalls (lighting), and the seminal idea of Drosselmeyer as the gay uncle.

But Morris' is sharper, harder, more brilliant, more incisive, better-conducted (magnificent Colin Fowler), and far better choreographed. The party scene is a screamingly funny '80s affair, with the bump, soul train, and hokey pokey replacing the bourgeois family-circle dances. Morris' Drosselmeyer (Billy Ellis) is compellingly sexy, profoundly imaginative, and his Clara (Lauren Grant) has the role of a lifetime.

The great scenes are Snow (unsurpassed, even by Balanchine), Flowers, and the grand pas. This ballet has had the unusual fate of coming into flower as time has gone by - the finale is now one of the glories of classical dance. As new dancers have championed it, it's become the greatest expression of young love and devotion I know, as Grant and her Nutcracker (Aaron Loux) declare their love for all the world to see. On every climax in the music they kiss. The partnering is grand, intimate, fresh and astonishing, including images I've never seen before, as when they kneel, smile, each rests a cheek on the other's hand, and they rise together into a double arabesque holding each other up. It is one of the great images of soul-matedness, the kind that only the dance can provide.

San Francisco Ballet dancer Esteban Hernandez is the Russian who springs out of the Faberge egg in Helgi Tomasson's "Nutcracker." Photo: Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet premier danseur Joseph Walsh in Helgi Tomasson's "Nutcracker." Photo: Erik Tomasson
Scene from Mark Morris' "The Hard Nut," presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. Photo: Frank Wing

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