Sugar-plum visions, or: Nuts!

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday December 15, 2009
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San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker, which is the longest-running complete production of this ballet a grand spectacle in the country, opened its 65th year last week. I caught Wednesday night's show.

There are four great things about our Nutcracker: A) the dancers, who are among the finest artists in the country; B) the splendid orchestra; C) and the house in San Francisco that forms the setting of the first act. OK, there's a fourth, for our Opera House itself is poetic architecturally to the highest degree, and before the curtain even goes up, the golden auditorium creates expectations that wonderful visions are going to rise before us tonight. There's the Christmas party itself, which evokes 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 brings presents that amaze you) that many of us remember �" though hardly anyone I know experiences these nowadays. Then come the Alice in Wonderland transmogrifications, when our young heroine's 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, whom she then has to rescue by throwing her shoe at the Rat King and braining him �" whereupon at last everything changes, a snowfall-like powdered sugar envelops everything, and the blizzard itself dances for her 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 were Christina Braa as our girl Clara, and Luke Willis her father, Brett Bauer and Gaetano Amico as party guests, Erin McNulty as the housekeeper with a mind of her own, Clara Blanco as the ballerina doll, Aaron Orza as the Rat King, and Frances Chung as a glorious Queen of the Snow. Maria Kochetkova and Gennadi Nedvigin danced the tricky grand pas grandly (though without much feeling), and the new Brazilian principal dancer Vitor Luiz made a fabulous splash in his first appearance here (my first sight of him, at least) as the scintillating Chinese acrobat.

They did all they could to buff up a show whose choreography is unfortunately dull, and in key places threadbare. The new-concept production (updated five years ago, and reset in San Francisco just after the great World's Fair) required new sets and costumes, new machinery that would accommodate the transformations, all kinds of restagings of the traditional material. The immediate impact of all the scenery was so dazzling that it's taken a little while for it to become noticeable that the story-telling is muddled. In particular, the party scene is a blur (the children's dances lack rhythm and shape, essential plot points go almost unnoticed in the hubbub); likewise, the Waltz of the Flowers simply must be given more shape and impact, and the Sugar Plum Fairy given something significant to dance. Finally, some emotional continuity must be created to maintain the identity of our heroine, for the little girl who has played the role for 9/10 of the show is replaced by the ballerina who will dance the grand pas. This is the most important and the most difficult magic of all: we must feel that the soul of the child is still there in the dancer in the pointe shoes, or else it's just a display of fancy footwork and finery. Current staging is abrupt and unconvincing.

Scene from Mark Morris Dance Group's The Hard Nut . Photo: Peter DeSilva

Actually, the night I was there, the many little children in the audience were far gone in the spectacle. One was actually dancing in the aisle near me during the grand pas; FWM, and it works for them. But as stagecraft for grown-ups, the new version is emotionally less effective than the Lew Christensen version it has replaced.

Across the Bay, Mark Morris' wonderful Hard Nut is playing at Zellerbach Hall. His parody of The Nutcracker is actually a great version, the most romantic of them all. After the low-burlesque party scene, and the stunning snow scene with its brilliant syncopations, and the raucous Merry-melody spoof of his Waltz of the Flowers, comes a mysteriously serious and very great love-duet for Clara and the Nutcracker �" he brings the whole world to her, and on every climax in the music, they kiss. The partnering is grand and intimate, and 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.

SFB's Nutcracker runs through Dec. 27 at the Opera House, Hard Nut at Zellerbach through Dec. 20. Both shows have 7 p.m. evening curtains. Info at,

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