Nutcracker check list

  • by Roberto Friedman
  • Wednesday December 20, 2017
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In a New York Times piece given the headline "10 Ways to Tell If Your 'Nutcracker' Is True to Tradition," dance critic Alistair Macaulay laid down the law about what does and does not constitute an authentic "Nutcracker." In other words, "What's kosher?," in ballet-maven terms.

Of course, the only truly authentic version is the authentic original. The Mariinsky Theater debut, choreography by Marius Petipa, music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, in Alexandre Dumas' adaptation from E.T.A. Hoffmann's story, dates to 1892 St. Petersburg. But "The Nutcracker" didn't really become a perennial American ballet in the Christmas season until the mid-20th century. The vanguard was San Francisco Ballet� who gave the U.S. premiere of a full-length production in 1944.

As Macaulay puts it, variations abound. That cashew-crunching table utensil of yore has been dragged through time and historical period, country and city of setting, often the very hometown of the producing company. The current San Francisco Ballet production, first seen in 2004, choreography by Helgi Tomasson, is set in Panama-Pacific International Exposition-period San Francisco, 1915.

Out There doesn't claim to be any sort of ballet expert, although we've worked with some very good dance writers. The best, such as Macaulay and B.A.R. scribe Paul Parish, write so that a layman can understand their insights without knowing a lot of technical terms. A few years ago, the NYT critic covered "Nutcracker" by going around the country to regional companies and attending their productions. For a time OT's niece worked for Richmond Ballet in Virginia, so we heard first-hand how thrilled a smaller company was to get the Times' attention.

In his piece Macaulay offered 10 "Nutcracker" checkpoints to determine "where your 'Nutcracker' is or isn't true to the ballet's heart and (a different thing) its tradition." Surely San Francisco Ballet's production gets high points on this? OT attended opening night to try to see if a layman could use these signposts to determine the "authenticity" of the SFB version. The numbered rules are Macaulay verbatim, sans his all-caps.

1. "This Is Not a Love Story." "'The Nutcracker' isn't about falling in love. So if you see the heroine Clara dancing a romantic pas de deux with the Nutcracker prince, you're watching an alternative version. You're also watching an unnecessary cliche." Clara is a voyeur of Act II. Check.

2. "Paths that Must Not Cross." "Drosselmeyer should be seen only in Act I, the Sugarplum only in Act II. Part of the story's mystery is that they never meet. Only the two lead children, the heroine and the Nutcracker Prince, meet both." But SFB's Drosselmeyer is also watching from the sidelines in Act II. What the sugarplum fudge is he doing there?

3. "The Overture: Just Listen." "If you see any character during the overture, you're watching a modern version. Many productions, mistrusting an audience's ability to cope without spectacle, try to distract from the music by starting to tell the story." Yes and no. SFB has Drosselmeyer doing some stage business at half-curtain before full curtain-up.

4. "Child's Play." "Clara should be played by a little girl; Drosselmeyer's nephew (who later becomes the Nutcracker and then little prince) by a little boy. Their only dancing occurs at the opening Christmas party." All A-OK.

5. "Who's on Point?" "Clara never dances on point, but the story brings her a series of increasingly marvelous women who do." Check.

6. "Don't Mess with the Score" "Tchaikovsky's musical composition has such integrity and variety that it should never be revised, cut or supplemented. I know only two productions that play all of Tchaikovsky's score in the right order, Mark Morris' 'The Hard Nut' and Alexei Ratmansky's American Ballet Theatre production, both of which count as alternative versions, changing the story more than most." We think there's been some minor messing with the score in SF.

7. "Act I's Ballerina?" "The Christmas tree must grow huge. As Balanchine said when fighting for money for his production's tree in 1954, the tree is the ballerina of Act I. The music, a gigantic crescendo of ascending phrases, tells you what's needed." Grow huge it sure does at the War Memorial. Golly.

8. "Transformation (No Dancing, Please)." "This is the most controversial of all. After the tree grows and after the battle between the toy soldiers and mice comes phenomenal music that should never be danced. True, Tchaikovsky gave it a strong dance-like rapture, but, like the overture, he meant it to stay undanced. This is transformation music in which the whole stage changes and we see the unknown territory through which the children will pass. Where there was one huge Christmas tree, now we see a whole snow-clad forest.

"I know only one production that has the courage to leave this undanced: Balanchine's. Many introduce a pas de deux here for the Snow Queen and her King, an anachronistic tradition that began around 1940." Uh-oh, we think there's some sort of business going on during this music in SF.

9. "Keep the Pantomime Dame." "Act II has to include Mother Ginger. She's a larger-than-life fertility figure, a pantomime dame whose crinoline hides multiple children - they dance their way out from under it and then back in. Audiences adore her, but for some reason European productions omit her. She's not in good taste, and that's the point." The SFB character is fully present and known as Madame Du Cirque.

10. "The Pas de Deux." "The big Act II pas de deux has to be danced by the Sugarplum Fairy and her cavalier. If you see Clara and her Nutcracker dance the Sugarplum numbers, you're probably watching a production by someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, and you're far into a mind-set light-years from the vision of 1892." OK by us here.

But: "Listen to how the score ends, with flowing music that implies travel, echoing the start of Act II. It does not take us back (as many productions do) to the start of Act I. Clara and the little Prince are, as in the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story, departing to yet other realms; they aren't going back to her native Nuremberg." Yet the SFB version brings Clara back to the San Francisco living room, where her mother walks her upstairs to bed.

Still, Macaulay concedes, "The best productions of classics aren't about puzzle-solving or filling in some 19th-century prescription. They're about discovery and imagination, the very things at the heart of the 'Nutcracker' story." Well, OK then! We call it a win for SF Ballet.

As a box of birds

Re last week's DVD round-up feature "Lady Sings the Blues," turns out there's a local angle. Writer William Dufty, who co-authored the movie with Billie Holiday, was the father of Bevan Dufty, former District 8 Supervisor and currently a BART Director. Billie Holiday was Bevan's godmother. The elder Dufty was gay, but had several wives, one of whom was Gloria Swanson. So, with that heritage, how could Bevan not be gay? Spoiler alert: he is!

San Francisco Ballet dancers Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in Helgi Tomasson's "Nutcracker." Photo: Erik Tomasson