Infused with imaginative splendor, San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is a holiday season staple. The ballet has long been revered by dancers and non-dancers alike; among heaps of hairspray, glitter, swords and helmets lies the challenge to perfect intricate choreography and reignite the holiday magic that was first conjured over a century ago, with the ballet’s 1892 debut in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
78 years after its U.S. premiere in San Francisco, “Nutcracker” continues to enthrall audiences, inviting viewers into Clara Stahlbaum’s (Neve Chang) festive, picture-book-perfect dream world — an ethereal space where a valiant nutcracker (Joseph Walsh) defeats evil mice and leads the young heroine through a land of decadent delight.
SF Ballet repositions the classic tale, setting the Stahlbaum family’s story in 1915 San Francisco. And, certainly, the warmth of the family’s eventful Christmas Eve pervaded the War Memorial Opera House like a hearty mug of hot cocoa, rich and plentiful.
Christmas tree aglow, the Stahlbaum’s holiday party commences as Clara, her brother Fritz (Dominic Gurrea) and their friends chassé and march around one another. Helgi Tomasson’s superb choreography emanates elegance; his interpretation of the party scene is both cozy and grand, embracing the excitement of the night before Christmas.
Clara’s enigmatic Uncle Drosselmeyer (Tiit Helimets) interrupts the party, bearing gifts that upstage those distributed before his arrival — a jack-in-the-box (Lonnie Weeks), a toy ballerina (Lauren Parrott) and a nutcracker. The life-size jack-in-the-box escapes the confines of his enclosure, executing graceful coupé turns and springy front walkovers across the entire stage. Likewise, the toy ballerina sharply isolates her movements, performing piqué turns before mechanically waving to the children. In embodying the physicality of pliable toys, both Weeks and Parrott break standard ballet conventions; they flex their feet, sharpen their movements and bobble their heads. Yet, this effect only emphasizes the fantastic technique of each dancer, who collectively complete strenuous skills while bringing Drosselmeyer’s magic to life.
SF Ballet further excels with its set design, wonderfully grandiose in some moments and appropriately bare in others. After the clock strikes 12 and Clara drifts off to sleep, the Stahlbaum’s Christmas tree miraculously grows up to 30 feet, glittering above the young girl with luster. Then, after Clara’s nutcracker is injured, the stage is void of ostentation, allowing the audience to solely focus on her beloved figurine as he transforms into a prince.
Arguably, “Nutcracker” is nothing without a fantastic Queen and King of the Snow and elegant snowflakes, and SF Ballet certainly astounds in this regard. As 150 pounds of snow cascade onto the stage, the Queen of the Snow (Yuan Yuan Tan) showcases gorgeous lines and extensions, performing excellent partner work with the King of the Snow (Henry Sidford). The sight is poignant and profound: Snow dusts dancers like powdered sugar, never causing them to bobble even in the thick of the fantastical flurry.
Entering the Crystal Palace, Clara and her prince are welcomed by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Nikisha Fogo) — one of the most technical and demanding roles in the production. Fogo captivates and stuns, spinning and gliding with deliberate intensity as she performs elegant fouttés and chaînés around waltzing flowers.
The show’s second act is a sparkling spectacle that spotlights the strengths of each dancer — effortless leaps, grand battements and phenomenal pirouettes. In the most emotional moment of “Nutcracker,” Clara metamorphosizes into a poised ballerina (Misa Kuranaga) and finally dances with her prince. Kuranaga and Walsh foster remarkable chemistry, adoringly greeting one another before exhibiting outstanding technique in their otherworldly and occasionally melancholic grand pas de deux.
As Clara wakes, her whimsical dreamscape fades, becoming only a figment of her imagination. Yet, even as Drosselmeyer restores her reality, the enchantment of the Land of Snow and the Crystal Palace is not lost on audiences. The whimsicality of Clara’s dream world peppers over the entirety of War Memorial Opera House like sprinkles atop cookies for Santa Claus, ushering in a holiday season that is sure to be both merry and bright.