Charm and Delight in San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker
December 14, 2023—San Francisco Ballet opened its annual Nutcracker last night to a packed and enthusiastic audience at the War Memorial Opera House. This current production is the Helgi Tomasson version that dates to 2004. Much has been unchanged over the years, yet audiences keep coming back. San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker has continued to attract and enchant ballet audiences for 79 years. And no wonder. The current sensational production features 83 Company dancers and 110 San Francisco Ballet students. Martin Pakledinza's spectacular costumes consist of over 300 pieces; the Snow Queen's handmade tutu contains between 300-500 Swarovski crystals and took over 80 hours to craft. One hundred and fifty pounds of artificial snow are used to shower the Snowflakes in the final scene of Act 1. And the world-class dancing goes without saying. It's a spectacular production.
Originating in 1892 Russia, Nutcracker is an American tradition that began in San Francisco in 1944. Tomasson's production is set in 1915 San Francisco. and opens with slides of street scenes from that period, leading to the Christmas party in the grand ballroom of the Stahlbaum house. This is a Christmas party most of us can relate to, with gregarious adults, troublesome boys kept in check by father figures, gags, and laughs.
Then it gets other-worldly with the entrance of Uncle Drosselmeyer, performed by veteran principal character dancer Val Caniparoli. As in previous years, Caniparoli's Drosselmeyer is exceptional; he manages to be a little spooky and weird, but wise, kind, and reassuring all at the same time. In Clara's dream scene, he spectacularly emerges from the floor in a cloud of smoke to work his magic. Drosselmeyer casts a spell on Clara, reducing her and himself to tiny sizes. Or rather, stagecraft increases the Christmas tree, presents, and furniture to gigantic proportions. The tree rises to over thirty feet. The effect is amazing.
The epic battle scene between the toy soldiers and mice included a booming canon, but some of the finer points were missing this year, such as the mouse in last year's performance inconspicuously performing CPR on a mouse felled by the canon blast.
The Queen & King of the Snow were danced superbly by soloist Jasmine Jimison and corps de ballet dancer Mingxuan Wang. The first Act closed with a beautiful scene of dancing Snowflakes costumed in white tulles showered by snow.
Act 2 opened with the beautiful Fairies scene, danced by young students costumed in pastel gossamer and wings and led by principal Sasha De Sola. Always elegant, graceful, and regal her chain pirouettes were met with enthusiastic applause.
Some of the other more outstanding performances included the Russian dancers. Led by Alexis Francisco Valdes with Joshua Jack Price and Jacob Seltzer, they burst from huge Fabergé eggs to perform vibrant Russian folk dances with the audience clapping in unison to the beat. Louis Schilling gave a hilarious performance as Madame Du Cirque. Along with her polka-dotted student Buffoons, her circus tent skirts concealed a dancing bear who stood on his hands and clapped with his feet. This was especially impressive in a bulky bear costume but, unfortunately, the cast list does not identify this talented dancer. The Arabian dance was performed by Sasha Mukhamedov, but I missed seeing Wan Ting Zhao in this role as in previous years. Zhao's sinuous movements are perfect for this dance, and her side grand battement is not only appropriate here, it's spectacular.
Nikisha Fogo, partnered with Aaron Robinson, stole the show with her pirouettes and charismatic charm. Her enthusiastic fans were out in force.
In addition to the outstanding dancers and spectacular staging, what makes Tomasson's Nutcracker so successful, year after year, is how it creates a warm affection around Clara's world, both her dream and family life. When she awakens and runs to hug her mother on the staircase, we feel she's home, safe and sound, from her great and wonderful adventure.