On Christmas Eve day, 1944, William Christensen, artistic director of the then fledgling San Francisco Ballet, presented the first complete Nutcracker production in America. It had been a collaborative effort, with advice sought from ballet legends Alexandra Danilova and George Balanchine regarding the original Mariinsky production. Christensen’s dancers all helped out with costumes, fabric and accessories acquisition, to stretch the $1000 budget. (Used red velvet stage curtains purchased from Goodwill were fashioned into Act I costumes.) Dancers made their own tights and transported armfuls of costumes across the street for the première. Nothing like the St. Petersburg première in 1892, certainly, but a hit nonetheless, and from this, a holiday tradition evolved.

2014 also marks the ten year anniversary of artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s current production, a distinctly San Francisco version of the holiday classic. It’s set in 1915 San Francisco, during the time of the Panama Pacific Exposition, which helped celebrate the city’s rise from the ashes after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. In this version of the story, Clara is an adolescent, on the cusp of awakening to the adult world around her. It lends an elegance and sophistication to the story that serves it well.

The story adheres to its traditional lines: Uncle Drosselmeyer, played on opening night by Ricardo Bustamante, is a clockmaker and magician, who joins the Stahlbaum family in their home. There he entertains all gathered, with gifts and mysterious toys. The set, designed by Michael Yeargan, is sumptuous, rich with detail, and complemented by Martin Pakledinaz’s refined period costumes. Bustamante, as Drosselmeyer, delivers a satisfying performance, maintaining his almost-sinister power without ever upstaging the others. Always enjoyable to watch are the dancing dolls presented as gifts. Max Cauthorn, as the harlequin, was particularly entertaining, with his liquid, acrobatic movements and mesmerizing off-axis balance. 

The entr'acte shifts the story into its fantasy counterpart, via Tchaikovsky’s luscious score. The orchestra, conducted by music director Martin West, was sublime here, as they were all night long. The Christmas tree grows ever taller, sets are swiftly moved about, replaced with oversized boxes and cabinets, lending to the illusion that Clara has shrunk down to mouse size.Mouse King Sean Orza handles the ensuing battle with the perfect touch of comic and villain. Nutcracker Prince Luke Ingham valiantly battles alongside minions of soldiers against the mice. Clara saves the prince, cleverly, in this production, by using an oversized mouse trap. Orza’s Mouse King dies with great gusto and theatrics, producing laughter from the audience as he crawls to his mouse hole and slithers down, legs and tail aquiver before dying. The Land of Snow is one of this production’s crowning achievements. The ensemble choreography is brisk, ever moving, the lighting (designed by James F. Ingalls) perfectly mimics a wintry, snow-infused world. Snow begins to fall, then more and more of it. Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro, as Snow Queen and King, gave a refined, technically solid performance, that nonetheless felt somewhat muted, more safe than power-charged. 

Act II brings us to the Garden of the Crystal Palace, where butterflies, dragonflies and ladybug – students of the San Francisco Ballet School – leap and cavort with blissfully few mishaps. Mathilde Froustey, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, arrives and greets Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, she dazzles. Her every moment onstage was rich with nuance and impeccable technique, revealing oh her Paris Opera Ballet background. Her exuberance and enthusiasm were engaging and infectious. 

The divertissements deliver the usual flavors from around the world. Spanish is fast, fleet, with Doris André a standout among the very competent quintet of dancers. The Russian Dance, a holdover from the company’s previous staging (choreographed by Anatole Vilzak) is always a crowd pleaser, from the moment the dancers (Hansuke Yamamoto, Esteban Hernandez, Wei Wang) burst out of Fabergé eggs, through their ninety-seconds of Trepak-inspired moves. The oft-criticized Waltz of the Flowers received an injection of pizazz this year with the presence of Sugar Plum Fairy Froustey acting as soloist. The ensemble work here was energetic, the music inspired, and my lone complaint is that the costumes seem provincial, skirts with big flower petals sewn on.

Tomasson’s story has the young Clara stepping into an armoire and re-emerging as an adult woman, to dance the Grand Pas de Deux with her prince. Here, Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham delivered a magical performance. Tan, a superlative dancer, is dainty and clean in her footwork. Ingham, promoted last spring to principal, is still shy of achieving his full potential as a lead, but his partnering skills seem to improve with each passing month.

Watching San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker is a memorable experience, one of the best renditions you will ever see. How proud William Christensen would be, to note how far the results of his pioneering efforts have come.