Nutcracker, SF Ballet

This decade-old production, made fresh by its cast, still shows off its elegant costumes and glittering scenic design.

Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky 

Conducted by Martin West

Choreography by Helgi Thomasson 

San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House

Dec. 16-31, 2015

It’s the holidays. It’s “The Nutcracker.” So what else is new?

Actually, quite a lot, depending on whose eyes you are looking through. In a long career of reviewing, this critic has seen more “Nutcrackers” than you can shake a candy cane at, but this year’s foray was in the company of two little grandchildren and that made all the difference. Because “Nutcracker” is about kids: kids dreaming, kids dancing, kids in the audience and the kid inside every grownup who still has enough sense of wonder to marvel at a Christmas tree that magically grows to the top of the rafters right before your eyes or a genie who slithers out of a smoking lamp.

Helgi Tomasson’s production for San Francisco Ballet is 11 years old but, unlike some of us, it doesn’t show any signs of wear. Set during the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific International Exposition, it affords the opportunity for some elegant costume design by the late Martin Pakledinaz in the first act party scene and glittering scenic design by Michael Yeargan throughout.

The story, for anybody left that doesn’t know it, is simple and adapted from a much darker tale by the famed E.T.A. Hoffmann. At her family’s holiday party, young Clara (an appropriately wide-eyed Sienna Clark) is given a miniature nutcracker by her Uncle Drosselmayer (the indispensable Val Caniparoli, who takes the part year after year), a magical, mysterious toy-maker. Everybody dances around: the guests, the grandparents, the kids. A few gifts pop out of enormous boxes, including a floppy but agile Jack-in-the-box ((Francisco Mungamba) and an automaton of a ballerina (Lauren Parrott). The little boys terrorize the little girls and then everybody goes home. Clara falls asleep and the rest of the ballet is her dream of an epic battle between the Nutcracker, now grown life-sized and soon to morph into a handsome prince (a high-flying Davit Karapetyan) and a horde of marauding mice, led by their menacing king (Gaetano Amico, who dies dramatically before disappearing into the orchestra pit).

The dream continues more happily after the victory, as Clara and her now-prince visit the Snow Kingdom where they are entertained by the Snow Queen (a lovely Jennifer Stahl) and King (Luke Ingham) and a blizzard that — in the only real glitch of the night — threatens to obliterate the corps of dancing snowflakes. Then it’s back onto a frosted sleigh, drawn by wonderful lattice-work horses (really dancers with lattice-work horses’ heads) to the realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy (the sparkling Vanessa Zahorian) and a host of divertissements. (Note: an intermission comes between).

There are the Spanish dancers, backed by Yeargan’s enormous lace fans; the Arabians, featuring WanTing Zhao as a sinuous genie, a French trio waving ribbons on sticks and those athletic Three Ivans, led by Esteban Hernandez, who jump out of giant Fabergé eggs to strut their Slavic stuff. In this production, the Sugar Plum Fairy does not have a cavalier but Zahorian gets to lead the Waltz of the Flowers. The Grand Pas de Deux, just before the ending Apotheosis that has Clara awaken to Christmas morning at home, is instead given to Karapetyan and Frances Chung (as an imaginary grownup Clara) and they do it proud, with leaps and pirouettes and lifts enough to delight any serious balletomane.

So that’s my take, but what about my two auxiliary reviewers? Well, Zoe, aged 7, was enchanted by the snow scene (always my favorite as well), at least till it got too snowy to see much, and not a bit scared by the mice. Josh, 9, loved the battle with the toy soldiers squaring off against the mice with sword and guns. But, truth to tell, he began to zone out toward the end, looking at the Opera House ceiling instead of the stage. Unfortunately, in doing that, he missed his little friend, Charlotte Rose, as one of the clowns crawling out of a circus tent-lady’s skirts. In all fairness, it was going on 9 on a school night. But I suspect that, if it had been a baseball game, he would have been wide awake.

Suzanne Weiss

San Francisco,
Suzanne Weiss has been writing about the arts for the past 35 years. Formerly Arts Editor for the papers of Pioneer Press in the northern Chicago suburban area, her work also has appeared in Stagebill and Crain’s Chicago Business, among other publications. Since moving to the Bay Area she has reviewed theater, opera, dance and the occasional film for the San Mateo Times, “J” and is a regular contributor to culturevulture. She is the author of “Glencoe, Queen of Suburbs.”