Back in 1944, three ballet greats put their heads together one night and revived, over the course of the evening, the ghost of an 1892 full-length Russian ballet called Shchelkunchik (or Nutcracker). Willem Christensen, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, had obtained a copy of Tchaikovsky’s complete score from the Library of Congress, and when the Ballets Russes passed through town on tour, he solicited the help of ballet master George Balanchine and principal dancer Alexandra Danilova. After food and drink, the two former members of the Imperial Russian Ballet enlightened Christensen about the choreography (by Marius Petipa and his assistant, Lev Ivanov, who took over when Petipa fell ill) and the characters of the original Mariinsky Theatre production. Christensen took notes, the three of them worked their way through the entire score, and by morning, Christensen had it—the bones of what would become North America’s first full-length Nutcracker production. The rest, as they say, is history. (Touchingly, Wednesday’s opening night performance at the War Memorial Opera House was dedicated to Jocelyn Vollmer, former principal and Snow Queen in that 1944 performance, who passed away this year.)

San Francisco Ballet in The Nutcracker
© Erik Tomasson

Artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s  current production, dating from 2004, is a dazzler with a distinct San Francisco flavor. Set in the city in 1915, when San Francisco hosted the Panama-Pacific Exposition, the production offers glimpses of the unique world cultures and flavors brought to the city by the exposition. Wendel K. Harrington’s slide projections blend 1915-era photos with the story. A sumptuous set (Michael Yeargan) recreates the Stahlbaum’s elegant Edwardian living room, and costumes by the late Martin Pakledinaz offer further refined elegance, all of it a feast for the eyes. A fire crackling in the fireplace seems homey and real, and it’s always fun to note items lining the shelves throughout the room that will later appear in Act II. Each performance, I manage to spy some new little detail I’ve missed. Last year: dolls within a cabinet that look distinctly Arabian, Spanish and Russian. This year: toymaker and magician Uncle Drosselmeyer (Val Caniparoli) presenting the adolescent Clara with an elegant lantern-like box that will later morph into the magical changing cabinet that transforms her into an adult. The party scene’s high point continues to be the presentation of Drosselmeyer’s life-sized dolls, particularly Mingxuan Wang’s jack-in-the-box and Lauren Parrott’s wind-up ballerina, in a pink, sparkly, cotton-candy confection of a costume that surely made every little girl in the audience sigh with delight. And of course, there is the show-stealing transformation, post-party, where the tree grows to thirty feet, the music crescendos, and in the blink of an eye, the scenery expands, the people shrink, and it’s pure magic.

SFB in Tomasson's The Nutcracker
© Erik Tomasson

Nutcracker-turned-prince Aaron Robison brought a palpable energy to the stage. Back on the San Francisco Ballet roster following a year with the English National Ballet, it was wonderful to see him once again dancing with the company. After his battle against the Mouse King (hilariously played by Seth Orza), Robison was regal and charming as the hero-partner to the young Clara (Kyla Lisette Paez Marcus). He whisked her off to the Land of Snow, which delivered, in addition to white-out blizzard conditions, glorious performances from Snow Queen Mathilde Froustey and Snow King Carlo Di Lanno. The latter executed powerful turns and leaps and deftly partnered an equally scintillating Mathilde Froustey. Her dancing always imparts a sense of the extraordinary, particularly in her elegant épaulement. Likewise, fellow French trained principal Sofiane Sylve, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, offered her trademark refinement and nuance as she turned, leapt, and gestured with pantomime precision. Other standouts through Act II included WanTing Zhao in the Arabian Dance, her mesmerizing, sinuous movements and extensions supported by Steven Morse and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira. The French Dance, with its often-treacherous overhead ribbon twirling, was impeccably performed by veterans Kimberly Marie Olivier, Maggie Weirich and Ami Yuki.

Aaron Robison and Sasha de Sola in SFB's The Nutcracker
© Erik Tomasson

Sasha De Sola as the adult Clara in the Grand Pas de Deux offered a lyrical, assured performance with lovely arabesques and rock-solid balances. She and partner Robison looked great together, demonstrating an appealing onstage chemistry. Both delivered strong solos, rich with all of the nuances one would hope to see – De Sola’s balances, hand gestures, head tilts to the crystalline music of the celesta. Robison’s leaps were powerful and high; in his impressive brisés, you could hear the solid “thwack” of the midair beats. De Sola’s fouettés passage with double turns were so clean and precise, one got the sense she could have kept going on and on. 

Ming Luke conducted the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, who presented a superb rendition of Tchaikovsky’s iconic score all evening long.