San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ is shining star atop this season’s Christmas tree

Photo of the Nutcracker performance
Erik Tomasson/Courtesy

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With its fantastical atmosphere and adventurous score, “Nutcracker” conjures the magic of Christmas and entices audiences with its bewitching spell. For many, the beloved ballet represents an essential cultural totem that heralds the joyous yuletide. This year, “Nutcracker” carries particular importance as it inaugurates the San Francisco Ballet’s return to the stage at War Memorial Opera House after a 21-month absence.

Choreographer Helgi Tomasson imbues “Nutcracker” with incandescent imagination that makes the familiar story feel both new and nostalgic. The venue itself seemed to glow with glints of gold, embellishing the aristocratic ambiance in the opening party scene. The set is a triumph, complete with a softly radiant fireplace, a towering Christmas tree and a “Cinderella”-esque staircase.

Visually impressive, the mansion feels grounded as a home because of the characters that inhabit it. Glittering ballgowns huff and twirl around the exquisite set, and the children are a charming mob of ribbons, bows, mittens and ringlets. Uncle Drosselmeyer (Tiit Helimets) charges the air with levity, and Clara and Fritz — played by the sweet Abby Cannon and hilarious Kai Hannigan — are delightful to watch.

Tchaikovsky, the composer of the original ballet, folded new and distinct melodies into the score with the zeal of jolly St. Nicholas skipping across rooftops. In this performance, conductor Martin West approaches each motif with intention and care, as if every song is a wonderous present under a Christmas tree. The orchestra charges each atmosphere with a distinct character — the romantic “Grand Pas de Deux,” the proud “Trepak,” the comic “Mother Ginger and the Polichinelles.” The dancers and the musicians bloom in harmonious matrimony, transporting the audience into the fantastical worlds of a young girl’s imagination.

The story dissolves into Clara’s resplendent and fantastical reverie, and the characters of her dreams move with ethereal grace. Tomasson’s choreography renders an ode to the human body and its potential. The body becomes papyrus for poetic expression as characters flaunt exquisite extensions and lithe leaps. Cannon endears as Clara, and her older co-stars are generous dance partners. Joseph Walsh, in particular, shines as the handsome Nutcracker Prince, all charming heroics and dramatic flair. 

The Snow Queen and King (Yuan Yuan Tan and Henry Sidford) pose like glass figurines but move with the liquid-smooth grace of running water. The accompanying snowflakes are an ethereal sight, donning tulle skirts that move like jellyfish. The Sugar Plum Fairy (Nikisha Fogo) spins and leaps through the air with inexhaustible, untiring buoyancy that leaves the audience breathless.

The set transformation swells in an astonishing work of magic itself. The first act culminates in a profoundly moving sequence, as flecks of snow descend from above. The show’s momentum picks up in its more episodic second act as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince travel the world for sweets. The vignettes conjure distinct national characters, but a few numbers inherit outdated stereotypes about non-European countries. The dancers shine in spite of the unchanged material as captivating portraits of technique and skill.

The grand spectacle of “Nutcracker” — of the glittering costumes, lavish production design, impossibly difficult yet effortlessly executed movements — kindles a rare sense of pathos. One that lingers long after the intermission and settles in on the drive along the Bay Bridge.

The San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” feels like a reunion — an event that always carries a special intimacy during the holidays. There’s a catharsis in unraveling estrangement, in thawing what was frozen in time. The ache of a 21-month absence is assuaged by the show’s warm embrace, and all is merry and bright in the War Memorial Opera House once again. To watch “Nutcracker” is to experience a homecoming — the kind that brims with magic and elicits enough ineffable joy to float into the new year.

Maya Thompson is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].