You’ll have to forgive us – we San Francisco Ballet patrons – if we act as though the San Francisco Ballet created the Nutcracker holiday classic. They didn’t, of course; Pepita, Ivanov and Tchaikovsky did, in 1892, as a commission by the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre. The San Francisco Ballet was, however, the first U.S. company to stage and produce a full-length version, premiering on Christmas Eve, 1944, with a budget of $1000. This year – on Wednesday December 11th, and with a considerably larger budget – the San Francisco Ballet recommenced the magic.

Dancers Frances Chung and Jaime Garcia Castilla © Erik Tomasson
Dancers Frances Chung and Jaime Garcia Castilla
© Erik Tomasson

Artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s 2004 Nutcracker takes place in 1915 San Francisco, at the time the city is hosting the Pan-Pacific Exposition. Night has fallen amid a cityscape of Edwardian row houses. Uncle Drosselmeyer (Rubén Martin Cintas), clockmaker and magician, has collected his nutcracker gift and headed to the Stahlbaum family’s household, where he later entertains all those gathered in a sumptuously set living room, rich with color and period detail. Clara, in Tomasson’s rendition, is a young teen, and interacts equally with adults and other children. Juliet Doherty, as Clara, handled the role with solid dance technique and an ideal blend of maturity and girlishness.

The orchestra, under the baton of music director Martin West, delivered a fine, nuanced performance of Tchaikovsky’s score. Quality rose to goosebump-worthy level during the Entr’acte, where the living-room Christmas tree grows, the scenery abruptly shifting to larger-than-life-sized doll cabinets, ottomans and oversized beribboned presents that seem to reduce Clara to the size of the mice. The shift is fast, impressive, and hugely effective. In the ensuing battle of the mice against soldiers, Mouse King Sean Orza performs with energy and comic gusto: once Clara has fatally wounded him (via an enormous mousetrap), he crawls head-first back into his hole, the still-visible feet and legs giving little death shudders. Following is some of the score’s most beautiful, soul-stirring music, as Drosselmeyer helps resurrect the nutcracker, removing the oversized head to reveal the prince beneath (Joan Boada), who, overcome with gratitude, whisks Clara away to his kingdom. 

The Land of Snow is always a spectacular event, with its winter setting and falling snow. Sixteen females comprise the corps ensemble, creating ever-shifting patterns of movement. Frances Chung, impeccably partnered by Jaime Garcia Castilla, performed admirably as the Queen of the Snow, a role that allowed Chung to put her trademark speed, strength and athleticism to fine use. As the snowfall increased, reaching near white-out conditions, the dancing continued, with the curtain finally closing on the snowy, ever shifting tableau. A visual stunner, and a great time to recognize the behind-the-scenes design talent at work: Wendall Harrington for production; Michael Yeargan for scenic design; James Ingalls for lighting, and the late Martin Pakledinaz for costume. 

Act II opens in the garden of the Crystal Palace, where butterflies, ladybugs, and dragonflies (students of the ballet school) flit about, joined by Sugar Plum Fairy Vanessa Zahorian. Here, and upon her return later in Act II, Zahorian offered a graceful, nuanced performance, as lovely as you’d expect from this seasoned principal, if not particularly ground-breaking.

Dancers Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada © Erik Tomasson
Dancers Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada
© Erik Tomasson

Among the ensuing Act II divertissements, Arabian Dance provided a pleasing image with dancers Steven Morse, Daniel Deivison transporting a giant genie bottle, from which emerged Dores André, who lent an elegant, mysterious touch to the sinuous movements. A similar sense of high quality ensemble work carried on through the evening, particularly notable in trio work, where errors are difficult to hide. The Russian dancers (Hansuke Yamamoto, Max Cauthorn, Esteban Hernandez) bursting out of oversized Faberge eggs, were a big audience-pleaser, with their leaps and spins and effervescent energy. French dancers (Marie-Claire D’Lyse, Kristina Lind, Jennifer Stahl), as well, exhibited admirable synchronicity within their group.

Tomasson’s fresh, intelligent production delivers a few unintended consequences that sometimes pulled me from the story. Drosselmeyer, present through Act II at Clara’s side instead of the usual Nutcracker Prince, became an overly familiar sight, almost intrusive, like a parent at a high school prom. The French dance (Mirlitons), incorporated elements of Can-Can, which, while French, seemed out of place. It was Toulouse Lautrec meets George Balanchine when I was expecting Maurice Sendak. 

In this version, the Sugar Plum Fairy does not dance the grand pas de deux. She is the soloist in Waltz of the Flowers and, after dancing, she leads Clara to an armoire. Clara steps in and re-emerges a moment later as an adult (Maria Kochetkova). The instant Kochetkova stepped out, transformed, and took her first arabesque step toward Nutcracker Prince partner Joan Boada, you knew you were in for the night’s most impressive performance. And neither Kochetkova nor Boada disappointed. His partnering was confident and intuitive and she, in turn, whipped out multiple, rock-solid pirouettes and fouettés, giving the impression she could keep turning all night. Leaps and fish dives were perfectly executed and both dancers’ variations were strong and energetic – a mood that carried beyond their pas de deux through to the ballet’s end. By then, I felt woeful as a child; I didn’t want the evening’s magic to stop. 

San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker will do that to a person.