Tis the season — the season for Santa and Scrooge and those ubiquitous dancing nutcrackers. And, of all the “Nutcrackers” in the Bay Area, stretching from Oakland to San Jose and beyond, San Francisco Ballet’s may be the most lavish. It was, after all, the very first United States venue for the Tchaikovsky holiday confection, which bowed at the War Memorial Opera House in 1944. (The ballet itself is even older; it’s been more than a century since it first tiptoed across the stage in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892).
Since that American premiere, dance troupes, large and small, have mounted it annually as a kind of cash cow. Television has only increased the exposure, especially through the oft-aired videotape of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s version. So, “been there, done that,” “seen it a million times.” Right? But there is a secret magic formula for avoiding “Nutcracker” ennui. First, upon entering the theater, check out the little girls in velvet dresses and party shoes, the wide-eyed lads wearing ski parkas over what may be their first real grown-up suit. Then, project yourself into the being of one of those children. You will see the whole thing through fresh eyes and a wondrous experience it will be, no matter how many times you’ve done it before.
E.T.A. Hoffman’s original tale about the rodents who try to steal a little girl’s Christmas presents and the magical nutcracker who comes to her defense was dark, a little scary, the stuff a child’s nightmares are made of. It has been considerably lightened up for the stage. Nevertheless, in the San Francisco version, the curtain rises on a sinister-looking Uncle Drosselmayer, putting the finishing touches on a toy nutcracker, a special gift for his goddaughter Clara. Then he and his nephew – who will magically morph into the Nutcracker Prince before Act Two – step out into a Dickens street scene, complete with projected snow.
This Prologue, substituted by choreographers Lew and William Christensen and Helgi Tomasson, the current artistic director of the company, is a welcome substitution for the more familiar “getting ready for a party” business seen in most versions of the ballet. Yet, it is a party to which Herr Drosselmayer — and the audience – is headed, a gala Christmas Eve fete at the home of Clara’s parents. Once we get there, there seem to be almost as many children on the stage as there are in the audience. But these kids culled from the San Francisco Ballet School, can dance.
Some magical toys are trotted out, a “Coppelia”-like dancing doll and a larger-than-life bear. Clara gets her nutcracker, which is promptly broken by her boisterous brother, Fritz. Drosselmayer mends it and, after a few group dances, everybody goes home. And that’s when the real fun begins.
The household sleeps and Clara creeps out for one more look at the tree which, before her eyes, grows and grows (to a height of 28 feet, according to San Francisco Ballet statistics). The playthings come to life. Toy soldiers march and, when a noisome, rowdy bunch of mice invade, the soldiers defend Clara and the tree, the Nutcracker, grown to life size, at their head.
Victory assured, it’s off to the Snow Kingdom for Clara and the Prince. This, for me, has always been the highlight of the ballet, as the corps whirls through falling snow (made of recycled paper; 100 lbs. per performance) and an offstage chorus sings. Beautiful pointe work by the Snow Queen (Julie Diana on opening night), partnered by her elegant cavalier (Stephen Legate) complete the scene.
Act Two is in the Land of Sweets, presided over by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Tina LeBlanc) and her cavalier (the high kicking Roman Rykine). They trot out the usual suspects for a series of familiar, but charming divertissements. After a Spanish dance, a sinuous Arabian number, jumping Cossacks, waltzing flowers and more, Clara and her Nutcracker Prince fly away home on the wings of a dream.
And so does every kid in the audience, no matter how old they are.