Nutcracker: Sssh-weet!

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday December 16, 2014
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The opening night of Nutcracker is, for lovers of classic dancing, as the opening Giants game is to San Francisco's baseball fans: it's the beginning of the season. And true to form, the fan turnout was huge. Though the weather outside was frightful, the Opera House seemed to be full; standees were thick, and during intermission, inside the ballet boutique, you could barely move.

It was a tremendous performance. Perhaps in homage to last week's torrential rains, San Francisco Ballet gave us a blizzard onstage to max out the record books. For the snowfall that ends Act I, the stagehands unleashed the biggest deluge I've seen in 20 years of attending these things.

Yuan Yuan Tan in San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker.Photo: Erik Tomasson

It's white confetti, of course, not snow. We could actually hear it rattling down from the flies, so thick at the end of the number amidst blazing white light (the guys on the computer light-board must have turned their knobs up to 11) that despite the brilliance, we could barely see the dancers in the back row. It was a white-out. The adrenaline rush was awesome; to see the Queen of the Snow (Vanessa Zahorian) darting, leaping, turning with exact precision amidst all this turbulence was to see Bravery Under Fire, Grace Under Pressure.

Ballet actually is like rocket science. Miscalculate the trajectory, come down at the wrong angle, fail to turn that corner where you're supposed to pick up some momentum from the gravity of Jupiter, and you're just wiped out. Especially since this was Zahorian's comeback after a fall that put her on the bench for the whole of last season, the audience was screaming with delight as the first-act curtain came down.

I don't think I've ever seen Nutcracker open so well-prepared. The children in the Christmas Party scene were ready and eager and a delight; there was a little boy, a whole head shorter than anybody else, who could jump higher than anyone else, and he could turn, kick and hit his mark. From the get-go, I doted on that child. As our heroine Clara, Audrey Armacost danced nicely and engaged the attention, as did Katita Waldo (her mother) and a very fine Uncle Drosselmeyer (Ricardo Bustamante).

Nutcracker is of course the story about childhood, a tale of a little girl and her doll �" but it is also one of the great exemplars of Opera House magic. It is one of the great spectacles, and it shares 98% of its genes with Disneyland, The Lord of the Rings, and all the Harry Potter movies. Indeed, during the Grand Transmogrification, when the tree grows and giant mice spring out to attack our girl, the Nutcracker is Clara's Patronus, who makes it possible for her to conquer her fears and kill the Rat King.

Hansuke Yamamoto in San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker.Photo: Erik Tomasson

The wizardry of Nutcracker is just as great as the blockbuster movies and video games, but the elements are different, since this magic is done in 3-D space and not with trick photography. The main ingredients are music (35%); scenery and machinery (2o%); lighting (15%); ballet technique (10%); make-up and costumes (9%); narrative (7%); and choreography (4%). We can argue about relative proportions �" especially since the choreography for the furniture is better than that for the dancers �" but the point is, though there are some wonderful school-recital Nutcrackers done in little theaters with sometimes fabulous dancing, and you should go see at least one of them if you know some kids who are in them, the grand spectacle is a wonder in its own right.

The main thing is Tchaikovsky's music. It is unbelievably wonderful music, and it makes everything happen. The fantasy is already in the music �" and if it's been updated to San Francisco in 1915, that's a trivial difference. Everything is there, from the Christmas party to the wonderful uncle to the bratty brother to the fantasy about the Nutcracker to the fear of the mice to the sugary snow to the brave new world and feasting on every great flavor Honeydukes has to offer, from Spanish chocolate Arabian coffee to sugar plums. Tchaikovsky's wizardry makes you feel the rhythms and smell the scents of biting into things crunchy, chewy, fudgy, crystalline, light-as-a-feather, and slightly druggy.

Nutcracker is not just about childhood, it is about things seen in miniature, an urban pastoral, where important human issues (conflict, betrayal, loyalty, civilization) are seen in a simplified form. Tchaikovsky never wrote better than when creating a magical miniaturized world. When phonograph records first went into mass production in the 1930s, the dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy was the top-selling song on the charts. It's no accident that Disney's great experiment in animation Fantasia (which contains a version of the Nutcracker Suite, a superb version) came out just before SFB's first production of Nutcracker .

We're looking at the ancestry of modern high-tech. Long before silicon chips were induced to hold 64,000,000 tiny switches, the great clockmakers had come up with robots that could dance and write; a decade before Georges Melies created his fantasy-film A Trip to the Moon, and decades before Scorsese's movie Hugo, the choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov created the Ur-Nutcracker, Schelkunchik, in 1892 in St. Petersburg.

SFB's production, 10 years old now, has been re-set in San Francisco, and the opening scenes set this up with uncommon finesse. Uncle Drosselmeyer, the watchmaker who has created the Nutcracker doll and is something of a wizard, moves through the city streets in a way that really evokes the Marina when that neighborhood was new. The family party is, though brief, a pleasure; Clara's dream, when the tree grows huge and everything is transmogrified, is a miracle of scene-shifting. But the battle with the mice is borderline ridiculous �" there are no real fights in it. It needs to be re-choreographed.

The dancers performed wonderfully throughout. Francisco Mungamba hit wonderful positions in the Chinese dance as he fled the four-man Dragon, and the three Russian dancers who burst out of the Faberge eggs (Hansuke Yamamoto, Esteban Hernandez, and Wei Wang) brought down the house with their derring-do jumps and spins. Mathilde Froustey as the Sugar Plum Fairy was a miracle of graciousness. Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham danced the difficult grand pas with great elan.