San Francisco Ballet Offers a Forthright ‘Nutcracker’

San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ choreographed by the company’s Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson is celebrating a decade of performances this season. Set in 1915 San Francisco, it has a dusting of Americana in Michael Yeargan’s detailed scenic designs of town houses on steeply pitched streets and in the floating architectural elements inspired by Flower Pavilion in Golden Gate Park. The great American Nutcracker story began in San Francisco with San Francisco Ballet and William Christensen’s original full length production. It opened on Christmas Eve in 1944. For that production he relied on Balanchine’s childhood recollections of Mariinsky Theater performances in St. Petersburg. And so began what has become a national phenomenon and the evolving democratization of a former Imperial ballet dressed to suit American ideas and American places.

 

SFB 'Nutcracker' Act I

San Francisco Ballet ‘Nutcracker’ Act I

This production is a carefully balanced blend of big time theater, all manner of dance, and of course, music. It’s harmonious in that way, none of the elements overwhelms the others, nothing is taken for granted or given short shrift. There are, of course, some spectacular moments like the growing Christmas tree scene which does a magical job of shrinking Clara and magnifying the mice and toy soldiers. Balanchine insisted on the growing tree as the primary theatrical element of Act I.  That requirement lives on in the famed New York City Ballet version, and here in Tomasson’s production. When the gargantuan fireplace, huge presents, and china cabinet of Clara’s dreams roll in, they tilt precariously, making a looming fun house out of the original elegant drawing room and the towering tree.  

There were other fine details, like the old fashioned footlight effect that introduced “Waltz of the Snowflakes”. That tidy snow flurry that passes for the background became an early, pounding blizzard. By the end, the regal Kristina Lind and Gaetano Amico as the Queen and King of the Snow were barely visible behind the corps de ballet and the swirling white stuff. It made a joyful closing to an act already well-filled with nostalgia and charm.

 The heightened theatricality of Act I gives way to subdued staging in Act II as the narrative moves from a family Christmas, dreams, and battles, to dance for the sake of dance. Jennifer Stahl snaked her way through the Arabian dance with provocative aloofness. She arrives folded into an oversized Aladdin’s lamp, escorted by two male keepers. The three French dancers (Mirlitons in the original), Jillian Harvey, Lee Alex Meyer-Lorey, and Skyla Schreter were terrific in their cancan outfits, blue stockings, garters, and wands with streamers attached. A segmented dragon accompanied the high flying Max Cauthorn in the Chinese dance, while Anatole Vilaz created the chreography for the Russian Trepak danced by Wei Wang, Diego Cruz and Aaron Renteria. It stayed tasteful with a balanced blend of ballet and athletic Russian folk prowess. But a spare “Waltz of the Flowers” diminished the corps de ballet almost to a backing ensemble for Maria Kotchetkova as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She and Uncle Drosselmeyer (he’s part of the family in this production, a toymaker, and magician) functioned as Mistress and Master of Ceremonies for the action in Act II. Their shared duties made all the dancing Act II feel naturally integrated into the familiar story.

 

San Francisco Ballet Waltz of the Flowers Act II

San Francisco Ballet Waltz of the Flowers Act II

Tomasson’s “Nutcracker” feels comfortable. He stays traditional in the best sense of the word, living up to those forthright sentiments expressed in the shop window sign of the ballet’s opening scene: “Compliments of the Season, the old, old greeting, kind and true”. Ricardo Bustamante as a sartorially eccentric, bustling Uncle Drosselmeyer and Courtney Gunsteens as Clara, make a natural, amiable pair. The impeccably danced Grand Pas de Deux (Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro) satisfies high expectations without overwhelming us. And finally, you envy the way in which the company’s accomplished dancers, well-honed orchestra, and choreography share equal prominence. This is after all, a different kind of Tchaikovsky ballet.  It has a heart that needs tending to, and Tomasson gets that part of the story just right.

(The reviewed performance took place at the War Memorial Opera House on December 22, 2014. Costume designs were by Martin Pakledinaz. Lighting designs by James F. Ingalls. The orchestra was conducted by Martin West. The Christmas greeting and artwork mentioned above was originally introduced in 1911 as a lithographed advertisement for a New York cigar company.)

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