|Val Caniparoli in Tomasson's Nutcracker. © Erik Tomasson|
OK. I’ll admit it. I’m a total sap for Nutcracker. You’d think after all the years of attending and appearing in performances, working backstage, and covering numerous productions for various media outlets that I would have become more than a bit bored with the whole thing. Nope. Not a bit. Some productions I like more than others, but basically, I’m a fan.
And San Francisco Ballet, the company that presented the first full-length U.S. Nutcracker, still offers one of the best. From the moment the house doors open, the audience becomes a part of one of San Francisco’s oldest and best-loved holiday parties. Garlands, Christmas trees, and Nutcracker dolls at the boutique welcome the guests decked out in their holiday party best. The lobby is buzzy as children and adults alike eagerly anticipate the performance.
The beautiful production, especially the set design by Michael Yeargan and the costumes by Tony Award winner Martin Pakledinaz, is set in San Francisco during the time of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition and highlights San Francisco’s distinctive architecture and overall look.
A bit of an overture to settle the audience, and it’s time for a bit of Christmas present buying in Drosselmeyer’s toy shop. The shopping done, the toymaker and his customers head off to their respective celebrations. As they walk down the street, the characters they meet further establish the scene, taking the audience back a hundred years and into the fantasy. Of special note was the scene’s young Flower Seller (uncredited) who took what is often a throwaway part and created something special with each person she encountered.
But enough of this poignant stuff, it’s party time! The curtains open on the Stahlbaums’ plush family gathering with its giant Christmas tree and all the Edwardian holiday trimmings. A charming Nicole Finken as Clara and a lively Nicolas Dolce as Fritz presided over the group of young guests. The girls were sweet and pretty, the boys rambunctious, gifts were exchanged, social dances executed, and all joyously celebrated the holiday.
In this version of Nutcracker, some of the first act music has been cut in the interest of tightening up the story. While a justifiable structuring, it unfortunately has the effect of limiting any sort of character development. The maids are reduced to furniture, the grandparents have become cutout figures, the interaction between the boys and girls is minimized, and when the Mouse King comes on, he’s dispatched rapidly, quickly disappearing down a hole in the stage floor. In some ways, the Party Scene used to be a children’s event that grownups supervised; now, with the cuts, it seems more of an adult event with a bunch of kids hanging around. Still pleasant, but different.
Even Drosselmeyer’s role has been truncated. Now he is more of a kindly, albeit a bit strange, family member rather than the mythical Odin figure from the original story. Fortunately, San Francisco Ballet has terrific character dancers in this role who get the most out of their stage time. On opening night, Val Caniparoli maxed out his moments, skillfully managing to focus audience attention on the story, all the while establishing his own character — plus, he pulled off some cool tricks. His assistants were magically appearing dancing dolls, including a Jack-in-the-Box, danced by the loose-limbed, technically secure Garen Scribner and a Dancing Doll, effectively portrayed by Clara Blanco (how does she make the doll both winsome and robotic?).
Later, after all the guests have gone home, Clara comes downstairs to check on her special present from Drosselmeyer — the Nutcracker doll. It is late, and she falls asleep on the sofa. In her dream, Drosselmeyer takes over and transports the living room into an enchanted world of toy soldier armies and marauding mice. At this point, any appearance of realism is discarded as the ballet moves into a fantastic world of childhood fears and wishes. From Clara’s terror of the mice army, to the cold trek through the Kingdom of Snow, along to the world of sugarplums and other exotic treats, the audience drifts into Clara’s imagination.
In her dream, the Nutcracker (with Clara’s help) defeats the Mouse King and, presto change-o, the Nutcracker turns into a handsome prince (Gennadi Nedvigin). Then, Pow! The tree and house disappear, and the Snow King and Queen burst through the blackness in a flash of silver and white. Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan warmly welcomed Clara and the Prince to the Kingdom of Snow, where the fleet corps de ballet executed the scene with speed and unity. No mean feat considering the amount of snow flying around the stage.
The act ended with Clara and the Prince being whisked off to the Crystal Palace by the Snow Coach, pulled by people-sized hobbyhorses.
Act II opens in the Conservatory where Ladybugs, Butterflies, and Dragonflies (students from the SFB school) flitter and flutter while waiting for the Sugar Plum Fairy’s arrival. Frances Chung was all elegance and kindliness (and incredible balances) as she welcomed Clara and her Prince and listened appreciatively to the tale of the Nutcracker/Prince’s victory over the Mouse King. To reward them, Clara and her Prince are invited to a big party.
The Act II character variations were generally well executed. Lonnie Weeks defied gravity as the student-propelled dragon snaked around him. Always a crowd favorite, the Russian Dance featured Pascal Molat, Daniel Baker, and Benjamin Stewart leaping through the giant Faberge-inspired eggs to audience cheers and gasps. The women in the French variation — Kristina Lind, Mariellen Olson, and Jennifer Stahl — managed to execute the twirling ribbons and the difficult Can-Can-inspired steps with aplomb. The Waltz of the Flowers was a treat, as the dancers swirled and swept across the stage in a colorful blur.
Then, through a magic transformation, Clara steps into a giant version of her own jewelry box and is changed into her adult self. (Hey! This is a dream, OK?) Opening night, she was transformed into the radiant Maria Kochetkova, all decked out in a golden costume. As she descended the stairs, she was met by her prince, Gennadi Nedvigin, for the Grand Pas de Deux — the unquestionable highlight of the evening. Through Nedvigin’s secure partnering and the pair’s supreme musicality, they transcended what is often a mere technical display. There were, however, some astonishing leaps to Nedvigin’s shoulder, rapid partnered pirouettes, and rock-solid balances to thrill the audience. What sets Kochetkova apart, though, is her interpretation of the solo variation. She hears the Russian folk tunes inherent in the music, picking out the delicate rhythms and channeling her inner Tsar Maiden. A pure delight.
When the party ends, the child Clara says good-bye to one and all, Drosselmeyer takes her home in the chariot, and she wakes up in her own living room. Obviously, some dreams are better than others — and this is one of the best.
So, whether it’s your first or your twenty-first time at Nutcracker, the ballet will draw you in and make you believe that life can be prettier and finer — if only you let yourself dream.
Performances run from December 9 through December 27 with matinees scheduled for most days; running time is two hours. For further information and to buy tickets, see www.sfballet.org or phone 415.865.2000. This is a popular production, so think about reserving your tickets in advance, especially on the weekend.
(Originally published at California Literary Review, December 14, 2011)