San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker is Happily Back in Full
by Michael Phelan
December 8, 2022—On the threshold of their 90th season, last night San Francisco Ballet opened their 78th delightful Nutcracker. The thirty-third Nutcracker choreographed by former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, it is the first of SFB's Nutcracker's with Tamara Rojo filling Tomasson's big shoes, and is essentially unchanged except for scaling the cast up from the pandemic limitations.
The largest production in San Francisco Ballet's history, the current Nutcracker boasts 110 children from the San Francisco Ballet School in various roles, eighty-three professional dancers, 183 costumes, and 150 pounds of artificial snow. With the lavish and imaginative sets, this is a spectacular and magical Nutcracker.
Tiit Helimets performed Uncle Drosselmeyer, a role he continues to excel in, with elegance, sophisticated bearing, and deft humor. Among the party-goers at the Stahlbaum residence, it was a pleasure to see retired SFB Principal and current Rehearsal Director Katita Waldo as Mrs. Stahlbaum, calling to mind her many stellar performances. The elegant group and partner dancing of the party scene to Tchaikovsky's majestic score is a performance in itself. Neve Chang as Clara exuded charm, joy, and youthful innocence. Drosselmeyer's dancing dolls never fail to amuse, but Corps de Ballet dancer Lauren Parrott stood out as the stiff yet graceful mechanical ballerina doll.
The stage set of the party scene is impressive in scale, but the wide and curving grand staircase is outstanding, accommodating a crowd of kids four or five abreast. A curio cabinet holds little dolls in Spanish, Russian, Chinese, and French costumes, hinting at what is to come. At Drosselmeyer's magical direction, the sleeping Clara and the toy Nutcracker are miniaturized, and the Christmas tree and furnishings grow to several times their size. Immediately, mice spring out from behind the now-huge wrapped presents, toy soldiers march forth from the curio cabinet to defend Clara, and a battle ensues. Sadly missing from previous performances was the easy-to-miss action of the mouse performing CPR on a comrade felled by the canon fire. It was a small but hilarious touch that added to the humor of the scene. After their triumph, Drosselmeyer transforms the wounded Nutcracker into a human prince, danced artfully by Principal Dancer Joseph Welsh.
Welsh's powerful sissones and cabriolés were an instant hit, followed by Principal Yuan Yuan Tan and Soloist Henry Sidford as the Queen & King of the Snow in a pas de deux made memorable by Tan's graceful arabesques and pirouettes. Cue the 150 pounds of artificial snowflakes, which began to flutter downward while entering are no fewer than sixteen Snowflakes dancers in white tulles, women of the Corps to accompany the Snow Queen and King, in what is perhaps the most beautiful and memorable scene in the Nutcracker.
Act 2 opens as Waltzing Flowers, again women of the Corps de Ballet, fill the stage in their in bright colored costumes. Dancing in interweaving patterns, they accompany The Sugar Plum Fairy, danced by Principal Nikisha Fogo, whose grand jetés seem to be exempt from the law of gravity. I'd love to see her in one of the more demanding solos in Sleeping Beauty.
The dolls of the curio cabinet to come to life in four short acts, led by the Spanish dancers: Isabella DeVivo, Thamires Chuvas, Rubén Cítores, Nathaniel Remez, and Mingxuan Wang. In the Arabian scene, Steven Morse and Alexander Reneff-Olson carry in a huge, smoking Aladdin's lamp. The top of the lamp opens, and Wan Ting Zhao sinuously rises in a sensuous, curving dance. Zhao seemed to hold back in the straight extension of her right leg, which usually touches the right side of her face with her knee, but didn't quite touch this time.
The Chinese dance features a stylized dragon, made up of students of the San Francisco Ballet School and led by Cavan Conley. Conley was impressive with cartwheels and kung fu moves but, as I've written in previous years, while this scene is entertaining, it is lacking in depth and could benefit from the influence of traditional Chinese dance. Blake Johnston, Pemberley Ann Olson, and Maggie Weirich, as the French dancers, known in some productions by the French pastry name Merlitons, swirled ribbons and performed attiudes devant in perfect synch and ended in an impressive split.
The hit performance of the four nationality dances is always the Russian, last night danced with astonishing skill by Lucas Erni and accompanied by Joshua Jack Price and Jacob Seltzer. Erni's performance of the traditional Russian Trepak dance is a crowd pleaser. And there is always vicarious pleasure at hearing the surprise from first-timers in the audience at the entrance of the Russian dancers and the antics of Madame Cirque and her dancing bear. How Lleyton Ho could dance in a puffy bear costume and do handstands while clapping his feet is a wonder.
The audience favorite of the night was rightfully Misa Kuranaga, accompanied by Joseph Walsh. Kuranaga's impeccable movements, including attitudes devant and derrieré, pirouettes, and arabesques, were done with such admirable grace and poise that she well deserved the praise the audience heaped on her in applause and shouts. She was beautiful in every detail.
San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker runs through Tuesday, December 27th at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. For more information, see sfballet.org.