San Francisco Ballet Returns With Stunning Nutcracker
December 11, 2021—If absence makes the heart grow fonder, San Francisco Ballet's fans enthusiastically expressed their growing affection on the December 10 opening night of Nutcracker. Marking the Company's return to live performances at the War Memorial Opera House after a 21-month pandemic hiatus, from Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's on-stage welcome-back remarks, through performances by stars established and new, to the final curtain, the audience responded consistently with exuberant applause. Maybe it was due to the long absence, but everything about this production seemed new and sharply defined. Were the huge fans in the Spanish dance new props or did we forget them from so long ago?
On this night Clara was danced with joy and charm by San Francisco Ballet School student Abby Cannon. She seems like a talent to watch, and we'll likely see more of her in the Company in the future. Company veteran principal dancer Tiit Helimets in the role of Drosselmeyer held attention as Clara's magical and kind uncle. He projected a capable and comforting presence, a feeling that he had everything magical in hand for Clara's sake.
When Drosselmeyer cast his spell to shrink Clara and himself, Michael Yeargan's scenic design was amazingly convincing as furniture, Christmas gifts, and the Christmas tree grew several times their normal size. The mice seemingly came out of the woodwork and scampered about as the toy soldiers marched out of a cabinet to confront them. In the ensuing melee, the scene makes comical use of trap doors and some inconspicuous goings-on, such as a mouse stage left performing CPR on a fallen comrade. Hilarious.
One of the most creative scene transformations was when principals Yuan Yuan Tan and Henry Sidford, as Queen & King of the Snow, entered in a chariot drawn by four dancers in white wearing silver horse head costumes. The ensemble entered upstage center through an expanding square in a black backdrop to reveal them bathed in bright light. There were gasps and ahhs.
The costumes, more than 300 of them all designed by Martin Pakledinaz, were a show unto themselves. Drosselmeyer's long, multi-shaded blue coat cost $11,000. The ballerina doll in the Act I party scene wore a tutu that weighed 18 pounds, making it that much harder for a dancer to pick her up and carry her away as though she were an actual doll.
It was gratifying to see retired SFB principal dancer and long-time audience favorite Katita Waldo as Mrs. Stahlbaum in the party scene, partnered with corps dancer Nathaniel Remez as Dr. Stahlbaum.
The iconic Snowflakes scene in Act I was mesmerizing as sixteen women of the corps de ballet and apprentices en pointe and costumed in white pirouetted and arabesqued through a dreamland of falling snow, followed by a 20-minute intermission for the stagehands to sweep up the 600 pounds of falling snow used in each performance.
Madame Du Cirque, in her giant circus tent regalia, was played comically by Louis Schilling. Her accompanying Buffoons included students in polka-dot clown costumes. But the scene-stealer as always was Lleyton Ho's acrobatic antics as the dancing bear.
WanTing Zhao reprised her role as the Arabian dancer along with Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Steven Morse. As in previous performances, Zhao rose sinuously and mysteriously from a giant Aladdin's lamp, a perfect application for her supernatural dexterity and extension. She was a hard act to follow, but the Russian dancers, Lucas Erni with Joshua Jack Price and Jacob Seltzer, literally burst on the scene. Erni's performance of the traditional Russian dance was phenomenal.
In the Grand Pas de Deux principal dancers and audience favorites Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh wowed the audience with magnetic pas de deux and solos to enthusiastic applause. Chung was convincing as the transformed Clara emerged from a mirrored cabinet to glance down at her costume and the ballerina Clara had magically become. Her pirouettes were wonderful.
One of the most enthusiastic receptions of the night was given to the newest principal dancer, Nikisha Fogo, in the role of The Sugar Plum Fairy. A native of Sweden, Fogo joined the Company this season, coming to SFB by way of Vienna State Ballet. She practically glowed as she effortlessly defied gravity among the Waltzing Flowers.
One of the more effective of Tomasson's innovations in this production is toward the end when Drosselmeyer assembles the cast of fantasy characters to surround the sleeping, dreaming Clara. It's sweet and touching, as is the awakened Clara running to hug her mother.
There was much more, all more than worth seeing. San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker runs through December 30. For more information, see sfballet.org.