November 28, 2020
San Francisco Ballet’s festive online offering is so much more than just another Nutcracker. Indeed, it’s much more than just a filmed performance of Helgi Tomasson’s cracker of a ballet. It’s an animated advent calendar and gift box all rolled into one; full of life, colourful and packed with warm Christmassy feeling.
It opens with an excellent interactive animation behind which are a podcast detailing the history of the ballet, an introduction to the orchestra (conducted by Britain’s very own Martin West), a behind the scenes tour and a ‘learn the moves’ video explaining the mime. There is even a 56-page online programme, a smart way of including advertising and bringing in a little revenue whilst the War Memorial Opera House is dark.
Thanks in no small part to the 1957 televising of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker for New York City Ballet (actually premiered three years earlier) and its ‘growing’ tree that alone cost $25,000 (equivalent to $225,000 today), the US is Nutcracker crazy. Anyone who has ever been to the US can attest that the moment Thanksgiving ends, it is everywhere; music playing in shops crammed with dolls, wrapping paper, candies; and it often bankrolls companies for the remainder of the year. Well, up until 2020 that is.
But full-length Nutcracker in San Francisco goes back further, to Lew Christiansen’s 1944 production, created with some input from Alexandra Danilova and Balanchine who, as children, had danced in the 1892 St Petersburg version.
Set in one of San Francisco’s Victorian/Edwardian era houses, survivors of the catastrophic 1906 earthquake, this fifth production in San Francisco Ballet’s history dates from 2004. Martin Pakledinaz’s designs look simply glorious. There is a nice touch in the detail of the décor, with the Christiansen brothers’ portraits hanging on the wall and greetings cards that echo the Waltz of the Flowers. We find ourselves in 1915 and a magical, foggy, snowy world that would soon be turned upside down by the country’s entry into World War I. And there is a lot of snow. The company use 600 lbs of paper to simulate it!
After the overture is accompanied by a photo montage of San Francisco in 1915, we are taken to Drosselmeyer’s toyshop where he is packing the Nutcracker that will become Clara’s gift. A brief street scene shows us that we are in a relatively affluent neighbourhood, confirmed when we enter Clara’s house where the usual assortment of juveniles are engaged in skipping about the Christmas party. As usual, the boys get the best presents, a full-rigged three master reminding us of San Francisco’s status as a major port.
Elizabeth Powell as the pre-adolsecent Clara is charming. Her invitation to join the adult dancing hints at her ‘transformation’ into an adult once the Nutcracker is revealed to be a prince. Everything is as it should be. Damian Smith’s genial Uncle Drosselmeyer does some neat magic tricks and conjures up some dancing dolls, then mends the Nutcracker after Clara’s younger brother Fritz breaks it, before everyone leaves or settles down for the night.
Clara falls asleep on a chaise longue that bears more than a passing resemblance to a sleigh, clasping the Nutcracker as in her dreams as Drosselmeyer rises through billowing ‘Frisco fog. In the mice’s battle with the tin soldiers, the latter ride glorious hobby horses, all splendid greys wilth flowing manes. The Mouse King is a marvellous creature, even if his dentition owes more to the carnivore than the rodent. It’s rather sad when Clara dispatches him in a mousetrap.
Then we get to how the 600 lbs of paper are put to use. The snow scene is spectacular; quite the best I have ever witnessed. Led by Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-François Vilanoba, the snowflakes are wonderful, at the end, clinching in choreographed collisions like merging flakes, soft, feathery and magical.
Very appropriately, the designs for Act II are based on the Pavilion of Flowers from the World’s Fair held in San Francisco in 1915.
Children dressed as charming period ladybirds, butterflies and dragonflies form a perfect backdrop for the entrance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, again in a gorgeous period tutu topped off by a Russian tiara. It is so good to see mime traditions being respected as the Nutcracker Prince reprises the tale of the battle with the Mouse King before the Sugar Plum Fairy (Vanessa Zahorian) heralds the celebrations.
Tomasson sets quite a challenge with a tricky Spanish dance matched only by the glorious costumes. The Arabian begins with two men bringing on a giant, smoking Aladdin’s lamp from which they extricate a sinuous genie in the shape of Sarah Van Patten (shades of Wilson, Keppel and Betty perhaps) and rightly wearing a modest, if glittery, bodystocking.
The Chinese has a marvellous five-person dragon with more than a hint of martial arts as it is confronted by Nicolas Blanc’s pirouetting acrobat. The Mirlitons are candy-swirled ribbon dancers, seemingly prim and proper until they do a little bit of cancan when we notice the naughty pink garters and ending, of course, in the splits. The three Ivans burst out of the front of giant Fabergé eggs, in 1915, in their heyday, and must almost burst lungs as well, so fast and furious is their dance.
Then a welcome visit from Madame Ginger, so often omitted from other productions, here a glorious Danny la Rue of a dame complete with a marquee of skirts from which emerges a rather cute Russian dancing bear.
There’s a glimpse of the flowers at the top of the act, but now they appear in all their cabbage rose glory, not accompanied by cavaliers, but as is befitting, an all-female ensemble with the Sugar Plum Fairy at the centre. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes (check out the gallery of them, with close-ups) are again superb and film gives us a chance to see the intricacy of the details, every pleat and ribbon on the underskirts too.
In this production, the Sugar Plum Fairy does not dance what is the grandest of Tchaikovsky’s pas de deux. A giant musical box appears and the Sugar Plum Fairy presents Clara with a golden tiara. She gazes amazed at her reflection in its mirrored sides before stepping inside. It revolves oh so slowly as the harp arpeggii melt in our ears, opening to reveal the young Elizabeth Powell transformed into Maria Kochetkova.
In that pas de deux, Davit Karapetyan is lithe and powerful, with panther-like soft landings in neat positions. Kochetkova meanwhile produces rock-solid balances, and super-fast and perfectly placed pirouettes and fouettés. The partnering is exemplary with leaps and catches all perfectly timed. In fact, all as magical as it should be.
Inevitably, as Drosselmeyer summons the panoply of characters to bid Clara farewell. she awakens to find that it was all a dream.
Every cloud has a silver (or perhaps snowy) lining: we perhaps might not have had the opportunity to see this wonderful Nutcracker had it not been for the dreadful year that has closed theatres worldwide. And while it may be $49 for a 48-hour rental, there is so much bonus content besides the fabulous performance itself that I absolutely recommend it. It certainly made me want to be ‘Frisco bound next year as we all pray for the return to some semblance of normal and look forward to savouring what we have lost for so many months.
San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker is available to rent online in HD until December 31, 2020. Visit www.sfballet.org for details.