By Jane Rosenberg
Last Wednesday my twenty-three-year-old daughter surprised me with matinee tickets to the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker, on view through December 27 at the War Memorial Opera House. Premiering in 2004 and choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, the company’s artistic director (and a famous alumni of New York City Ballet), this production offers as many delights as the renowned Balanchine version. Forgoing the usual nineteenth century German setting, we find ourselves in San Francisco in the year of the Panama Pacific International Exposition. Everything, from the costumes to the sets to the characters inhabiting the comfortable San Francisco town house of Act One, is rendered with such intelligence and taste that the transformation to early twentieth century America seems wholly believable and natural.
From the moment the overture of Tchaikovsky’s glorious score began, played with Christmas spirit by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, we were plunged into the life and times of 1915 San Francisco. A policeman, a flower seller, a delivery man, a nanny with a pram, a pair of nuns all toddled across the stage against a backdrop of beautifully realized middle class townhouses, created by scenic designer, Michael Yeargan. Herr Drosselmeyer, the toymaker, has left his shop carrying a large package and joined the parade going by, to finally enter the bustling party inside the Stahlbaum house.
When the dancing began in Act One of this delightful production, we knew we were in for two hours of ballet performed at the highest level. A lovely young dancer, Fiona Zhong, inhabited Clara, here recast as a slightly older teenager, nearing womanhood. Val Caniparoli as a dignified Drosselmeyer was captivating in his role as the magical toymaker, creator of wonders. And the wonders began when a life size Harlequin tumbled out of a giant box. Among the most memorable choreography of the ballet, this doll, as danced by Francisco Mungamba, stretched and slid across the floor in a costume of brilliant yellows, part rubber Gumby, part ragdoll. As the grandfather, Sebastian Vinet was an intoxicated delight, and as his regal wife, Patricia Keleher completed the pairing.
Nowhere in this production was the excitement more palpable than after the guests departed, and Clara was left to witness the transformation of her living room into a bewitched battleground. The tree, the gifts, the furniture grew as Clara dashed to and fro. No sleepy witness, Clara took an active part in the battle that followed.
Organized, fanciful, and daring all at once, this battle of mice and men took on an almost heroic glow. No slipper would do here to distract the Mouse King from stabbing the Nutcracker. Instead, Clara marshaled a regiment to carry in a giant mousetrap. With a snap, the King was caught, allowing the Nutcracker to thrust his sword and claim the day.
Drosselmeyer then reappeared and transformed the Nutcracker, at Clara’s behest, into a Prince, danced expressively by Jaime Garcia Castilla. Clara and her prince shared a brief pas de deux before their surroundings morphed into the Land of Snow. I found myself missing the excitement of Clara journeying out into the snowy night, but all was well with the arrival of the Snow Queen, danced with crystalline delicacy by Wan Ting Zhao and her King, Daniel Deivison. Unfortunately, the live children’s chorus, which normally adds such exuberance to the scene was not heard at this matinee. With Tomasson’s satisfyingly classical choreography, however, we reveled in the sheer beauty of line and pattern of the dancing snowflakes.
The second act found Clara and her prince not in the Land of Sweets, but in a Crystal Palace – a reflection of the 1915 exhibition. Instead of the usual candy infused greeting, Clara was met by ladybugs, dragonflies, and butterflies. Though the set was modest, with each divertissement, the lighting, designed by James Ingalls, changed color; and stylized objects appeared: fans, a tent, an Aladdin’s lamp, Russian Easter eggs, even a dancing dragon. The effect was charming. The dancing was charming as well: notably the French showgirls with twirling ribbons, the Russian dancers, Benjamin Stewart, Daniel Baker, and Francisco Mungamba (choreographed by Anatole Vilzak in 1986), and Madame du Cirque complete with little clowns and a dancing bear. The only disappointment was the Arabian Dance. Though the arrival of Arabian Coffee in an Aladdin’s Lamp carried by two attendants was inspired, the choreography failed to reflect the sensuousness of Tchaikovsky’s score.
The Waltz of the Flowers was beautiful for its changing patterns, but lacked an intensity to match the score. The Sugar Plum Fairy of Courtney Elizabeth, her role curtailed in this production, danced majestically. In a surprising twist, Sugar Plum no longer danced the grand pas de deux with her cavalier. Instead, the fairy escorted young Clara into a magical cabinet, only to disappear and reappear as her adult self. The adult Clara danced with the Nutcracker Prince, lending emotional power and poignancy to the pas de deux. It is the dream of adulthood as envisioned by a child, and the effect was poetic in concept and execution. Frances Chung was a glowing Clara, and Castilla matched her in grace and power.
The matinee audience, comprised largely of mothers with their velveted and beribboned little daughters, sat for two glorious hours, wholly transported to a fairy tale world. So complete was the magic that my grown daughter, a writer and baker living in San Francisco, turned to me and, half in jest, said, “I want to be a ballerina when I grow up.” Me too.
Illustration ©1985 by Jane Rosenberg. Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets and SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.