SF Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ revels in tradition

Erik Tomasson/Courtesy

On Dec. 18, people hurried into the invitingly lit halls of the War Memorial Opera House, trying their best to escape the Bay Area downpour and salvage their Christmas best. At the door, children were handed plush bears. The theater lobby was warm and welcoming, decked out lavishly for the holidays.

They were there for the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker, an annual affair — less a ballet than a Christmas extravaganza. The fairytale contrast between the pitch black cold outside and the shimmering beaux arts elegance inside only heightened the storybook effect. The San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker is a practiced tradition. The ballet had its U.S. premiere in this same San Francisco opera house, under the same company, on Dec. 24, 1944.

Artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s production, now in its 11th year, seizes on this longstanding connection and sets Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet in the City by the Bay in 1915. Before the curtains even went up, a series of painted images of the city appeared on the curtains — in the style of an arcade mutoscope — that announced its change of century. The home of Clara Stahlbaum, the ballet’s young heroine, becomes a typically San Franciscan Victorian mansion. The lighting of the Christmas tree becomes an awe-inspiring moment of technological advancement. Setting the ballet in the 1910s gives the ballet a lovely airiness as the petticoated Baroque heaviness of a more traditional iteration dissipates.

Nutcracker is largely plotless in the way a lot of great children’s art is. It captures the meandering fantasy world of children, but it also means the first act feels unnecessary. Act One is, for the most part, a Christmas party with an emphasis on storytelling through graceful, physical acting. Clara receives a nutcracker doll from her toymaker Drosselmeyer, but not much else happens — there’s some polite dancing, the Nutcracker is broken, fixed, Drosselmeyer does some magic. It is not enough to justify the build-up of the first act. Nothing that occurs in the slow-paced, dance-short act has consequence later on, because the ballet is fundamentally a picaresque.

Things get good when Clara falls asleep. She awakens in an ambiguous dream state and is soon attacked by the Mouse King and his mice minions. The Nutcracker Prince steps in to rescue her, battling off the mice. Perhaps the great mystery of Nutcracker is why Clara is so enamored with what is probably the third creepiest toy after clown dolls and jack-in-the-boxes. Thus, it is a relief when the Nutcracker removes his giant plush head to reveal a gallant, handsome human male.

The first act ends with the Land of Snow — a breathtaking wiping of the slate as the mansion falls away, replaced with a sparse, white stage. Act Two is a dazzling pageant of flowers and around-the-world acts. The Sugar Plum Fairy commands an adorable coterie of kids in the Crystal Palace. Perhaps the most viscerally exciting set piece is the giant Faberge eggs from which the Russian dancers burst out to perform their famous dance, but the most elegantly energetic is the Chinese dancer, with a stunning display of acrobatics. The funniest is the dancing bear of Madame Du Cirque’s underskirt circus.

If the choreography at times does not match the quickness of Tchaikovsky’s music, or if there is simply not enough dancing, as in the first act, it is forgiven because The Nutcracker is a ritual. It is a Christmas tradition, and for many, an entry into the very medium of ballet. In the lobby during intermission, children twirled around happily in heavily modified pirouettes, imagining themselves as ballerinas. If just one child is delighted, or inspired, if they go on to dance or are simply enchanted, The Nutcracker has done its job. This production has undoubtedly pulled that off.

Contact Miyako Singer at [email protected].