Amazing grace: 'Nutcracker' returns

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday December 14, 2016
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 San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's <i>Nutcracker.</i><br> Photo: Erik Tomasson<br><br><br><br><br><br><br>
 San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker.
Photo: Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet moved back into the Opera House last Saturday night with their big-league production of The Nutcracker . Dance fans come from all over the world to see heroic dancing on the scale presented to us by the stars of this company. All of us can go see a show that uses the full battery of theatrical illusion that the Opera House can provide.

Although Nutcracker is about childhood, Tchaikovsky's Romantic score uses a huge orchestra in its grand climaxes. The blizzard scene, which provides the transition from the domestic scene in old-time San Francisco to the ideal realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy, is one of the greatest transformation scenes the opera-house world has to offer. It follows an earlier phantasmagoric scene in which the Stahlbaum living room changes shape in the little girl's dream into an Alice-in-Wonderland -style, gigantic, menacing world of colossal rats and life-sized tin soldiers " Christmas presents grown to life-sized monsters, engaged in a life-and-death struggle with nightmarish vermin, which her Nutcracker wins for her with swashbuckling panache.

This is all managed through opera-house magic. SFB engaged a first-class team of designers, from Broadway and opera and ballet, to create scenery that rushes into place, costumes that create a nostalgic atmosphere, lighting that creates mystery and romance, and a heaven full of white confetti that falls in flurries and downpours, blown about by wind machines, as a whole corps de ballet dances their crisp, brilliant steps amidst this dazzling snowfall. Make no mistake: the end of the first act is dangerously exciting; the dancers are flying through the air in grand jetes on a stage that's so thick with whirling white flakes that you can hardly see them, and nobody looks scared. Our French ballerina Mathilde Froustey made a triumphant debut as the Queen of the Snow, perhaps the most brilliant performance of that role that I have ever seen, cutting her figures sharply, with a silhouette as knife-like and gleaming as a diamond's. The dance is all about crystals, and she as the central figure epitomized the idea of geometric clarity.

The Christmas party with which every Nutcracker since the first Russian production in 1892 has begun is the weakest scene in our production, especially on opening night, when the ensemble work is still pulling together. Individual performers may have had the chance to polish their solos, but the interplay of the aunts and uncles and children in the party always gets better as the run gets going. It was a rather messy hubbub on opening night, but it will get smoother as the company finds the groove. They perform several times a day for the rest of the month. Outstanding were Jim Sohm as the grandfather and Ricardo Bustamante as Clara's father (both once principal dancers and still charismatic performers); the young dancer Anna Javier as our adolescent heroine; Ruben Martin Cintas as her queer godfather, the magician Drosselmeyer; and Myles Thatcher as the rag doll, who really seemed to be a boneless creature, stuffed with cotton. The uncles and aunts were an amorphous presence. I missed Luke Willis and Chidozie Nzerem, who brought the middle-aged members of the family to vivid life as cool uncles you were proud to claim as kin.

Our production comes to life in the second act, the ideal world of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where the dancers show you how physical difficulties can be overcome with amazing grace. This is a world beyond strife, like that of Utopia, the "better world" that came into existence 500 years ago this month in 1516. Thomas More's better world has been the model for many utopias since, but in every case, there's been a common realm, where all nations are equals and all are allowed to be themselves to the top of their bent. In Nutcracker, after Clara defeats the Rat King, she and her nutcracker enter a realm of intense, characteristic delights. It's an allegory: Arabia is represented by coffee, China by tea, Spain by chocolate, and so on, and each nation is represented by a classicized version of their ethnic dance. Every one of these was fabulous. Certainly the most exciting was the Russian troika, who burst out of Faberge eggs and danced a troika with every kind of spin and hop in a dance choreographed by the late Anatole Vilzak. He came to SF from the old school in Russia, taught here, and left us this wonderful, extremely challenging dance, which Wei Wang, Benjamin Freemantle, and John-Paul Simoens put over the top to the point where the audience was screaming.

Other heroic dancers in this act were Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Anthony Vincent as mirror-image dancers in the Arabian number, Francisco Mungamba as a dazzling Chinese acrobat in the tea dance (his timing was unparalleled for finesse and daring), Sophiane Sylve as the Sugar Plum fairy, and the dancers of the Grand Pas, Vanessa Zahorian and Carlos Quenedit, who jumped in at the last minute to replace Davit Karapetyan as her cavalier. Quenedit, who comes from Cuba, has the larger-than-life style of dancers who come from that island, and demonstrated the grand style on the grandest scale I have seen in a long time. It is characteristic of Cuban dancers to perform in a populist style, playing to the grandstands, but without a hint of the crass. They simply throw themselves into it in a manner that no one could misunderstand. At the end of his variation, he circled the stage in grand jetes that made the space seem way too small, and he flew offstage into the wings with no sense of danger.

It's the dancers who make Nutcracker. Go see them.