Nuts: cracked!

  • by Paul Parish
  • Monday December 21, 2015
Share this Post:
San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's <i>Nutcracker</i>. Photo: Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker. Photo: Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker opened last week and shows astonishing staying power. After 70 years, in its fifth production, it's still a muscular blockbuster holiday extravaganza. The show is whip-smart, with "How'd they do that?" effects scaled at many levels, so the colossal moments in the phantasmagoric dream sequence have been prepared for in that mysterious way great theater requires. Every moment has its necessary life in bringing the whole thing to you.

Twenty years ago this paper's great dance critic Keith White felt that, writing for a gay audience, he had to ignore the story and setting and get straight to assessing the dancers. Times have changed. It's no longer necessary to apologize for Magic Realism, or to tiptoe around the family drama Nutcracker is rooted in. Now that the very idea of gay marriage has become thinkable and gay families are taking their place in the middle class, the bourgeois family circle fails to stand in the way of letting this ballet deploy its strengths. The Stahlbaums clearly have a gay uncle who's godfather to their daughter, and they're fine with that. Gay icon Tchaikovsky's perennially absorbing music can sweep you up into a fantasy that's truly wizardly, but still physicalized in a way that's as remote as possible from virtual reality. Everything that's old-fashioned about it looks different now. The bricks-and-mortar aspect becomes a solid strength, and the old opera-house magic tricks can put the whammy on you. Those are real bodies up on that stage, and when a person materializes in a space that was thin air just a moment ago (done with trap doors and hydraulic lifts), the effect is visceral. That body has weight and force, and can't be made to float or disappear through CGI or quick cutting. The dancers' confidence as their assignments become more dangerous " any child can tell how hard this must be " blows your mind with adrenaline rushes.

Production elements are world-class. Tchaikovsky's gorgeous music, played lusciously by the ballet orchestra under Martin West's capable direction, is drenched in homesickness. Helgi Tomasson has assembled a crack team of experts who have designed sets, costumes, and lighting that fit the music and place the action believably in the San Francisco of 100 years ago, when the city was rebuilding after the earthquake. The Edwardian living room has a huge Christmas tree with electric lights and a sweeping staircase stage left, put to fantastic effect when, after all is said and done, the after-party nightmare with its unexpectedly happy ending, the stairs rematerialize and the girl can run upstairs into her mother's arms. It was all a dream.

The whole show works like clockwork. The queer uncle Drosselmeyer, who brings a nutcracker doll for Clara that plants the seed for her dreams, is at the center of an aesthetic that celebrates animation technology in its 100-years-old form. When, in her dream, the living-room walls fly away, the tree and the furniture grow to giant size, everything locks into place with miraculous timing. Giant mice appear. Clara, her Nutcracker, and an army of tin soldiers defeat them. Clara herself takes the strategic lead in killing the Mouse King, whereupon he crawls back down the prompter's box, and the world is transformed into a blizzard of whirling snow (or is it sugar?) and the ballet unleashes its first blast of full-tilt choreography. What seems to be hundreds of girls on pointe dance under tons of confetti falling from the flies, amidst which Lauren Strongin was astonishingly brilliant as the Queen of the Snow, ably partnered by Vitor Luiz.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Frances Chung and Davit Karapetyan in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker. Photo: Erik Tomasson

It's as a community experience that I enjoy Nutcracker the most. The responses of other members of the audience under other circumstances can be annoying, even ruinous, but at the Nutcracker the gasps of astonishment are almost as much fun as the show. What keeps it fresh is the way individual dancers bring new life to it. Sienna Clark made a brave heroine out of Clara, and Val Caniparoli played his perennial role as Uncle Drosselmeyer with great energy and warmth. Emma Rubinowitz excelled as the party scene's ballerina doll, and Myles Thatcher made a totally plausible, rather exasperated party guest. These cameos are sometimes the most memorable things of all; I will never forget Chidozie Nzerem's party guest from 10 years ago: he seemed to be channeling his own grandfather and bringing him back to life.

"Hot Chocolate" was brilliantly danced in the Spanish manner by Isabella de Vivo and Norika Matsuyama, with Diego Cruz, Esteban Hernandez, and James Sofranko partnering them. Sasha de Sola made a luscious Arabian dance from the music for "Coffee." Steven Morse was the Peking acrobat chased about the stage by a delightful Chinese dragon. Riotous was the troika of Russians who sprang from Faberge eggs: Max Cauthorn, Alexander Reneff Olson, and John Paul Simoens, in choreography of the late, great Anatole Vilzak, who came from Russia with Balanchine, and late in life taught his art at the SFB School.

In the Grand Pas, Frances Chung achieved true ballerina stature. It was a magnificent performance with no false moments, no matter how astonishing the feat, as when she suddenly materialized, serene and happy, sitting in the lotus position on the shoulder of her cavalier, the wonderfully musical Davit Karapetyan.

The whole production realizes San Francisco's cosmopolitan, universal human values. If it's weak anywhere, it is in the choreography, which is due perhaps for some reconsideration. Especially the Sugar Plum Fairy's steps are lacking in invention, and her place in the "Waltz of the Flowers" could be made more compelling.