San Francisco Ballet’s The Nutcracker  carries an extra note of significance to its audience this year. The production is set in 1915 San Francisco, when the city, reborn after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire, hosted the Panama Pacific International Exposition, with its wonders and flavors from around the world. This year marks the event’s centennial and this quintessentially San Francisco production, choreographed by artistic director Helgi Tomasson in 2004, after the 1892 Pepita/Ivanov original, reminds us why we love both this city and this company.

Val Caniparoli in Tomasson's <i>Nutcracker</i> © Erik Tomasson
Val Caniparoli in Tomasson's Nutcracker
© Erik Tomasson

Set design by Michael Yeargan recreates a sumptuous Edwardian style living room, complete with a grand staircase. In the Stahlbaum household, the mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer joins the party, bearing gifts, including a nutcracker for Clara (Sienna Clark), who here is an adolescent. Val Caniparoli played a dynamic Uncle Drosselmeyer, lending the role enough energy and mystery without too much hyperbole. Period costumes, designed by Martin Pakledinaz, were as rich and elegant as the living room décor. This act brought the usual charmers, including Francisco Mungamba’s and Lauren Parrott’s life-sized jack-in-the-box and dancing doll, respectively. Later, in the battle scene, the droll menace of the Mouse King, played by Gaetano Amico, entertained all, particularly in his theatrical exit: a quivering foot as the mortally wounded king slid head first back into his mouse hole.

Music Director Martin West led the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra in a sublime rendition of Tchaikovsky’s dramatic score. Particularly effective was the climaxing passage accompanying the living room’s transformation into a fantastical dream world. The Christmas tree increased in size tenfold, furniture and wrapped presents were whisked away, replaced by wildly oversized ones. In the blink of an eye, Clara and the audience seem to shrink to mouse size, all perfectly choreographed to the now thundering music. I would go to this production, time and time again, for this spine-tingling moment alone.

Davit Karapetyan, as the Nutcracker Prince was sublime, his face suffused with delight at his post-battle transformation, slavishly grateful to Clara – any adolescent girl’s dream come true – as he leapt and spun with effortless grace before whisking her away. He’s a supremely talented dancer, with a warm, generous bearing that appeals to young audience members and adults alike.

Frances Chung and Davit Karapetyan in Tomasson's <i>Nutcracker</i> © Erik Tomasson
Frances Chung and Davit Karapetyan in Tomasson's Nutcracker
© Erik Tomasson

Land of Snow presents a perfectly lit alpine glade (James F. Ingalls, lighting design) and on Wednesday night, Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham, as the Snow Queen and King, were a winsome, graceful couple, with strong leaps and partnered sisonne lifts. The brisk, ever-moving corps ensemble, in diaphanous white tulle, performed admirably amid the ever-increasing falling snow, which, by the end, approached white-out conditions. The sum effect was dazzling. 

Act Two brought the garden of the Crystal Palace, as students of the San Francisco Ballet School leapt and cavorted as dragonflies, butterflies and a sextet of the cutest ladybugs I’ve ever seen, all of whom performed blissfully without mishap. Vanessa Zahorian, as Sugar Plum Fairy, brought to the role her trademark grace and technical authority. She’s lovely, loveable, the perfect Sugar Plum Fairy. The ensuing divertissements showcased strong dancing and revealed new faces within the company, with an occasional inconsistency in ensemble phrasing the only complaint. Synchronicity in Arabian improved once a pleasingly sinuous WanTing Zhao emerged from an Aladdin's lamp, carried on and tended carefully by Gaetano Amico and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira. Spanish, too, seemed to grow sharper when the female dancers, Ellen Rose Hummel and newcomer Jahna Frantziskonis, joined Max Cauthorn, Francisco Mungamba and Aaron Renteria, for a spirited pas de cinq. Russian dance, the lone survivor of the 1986 production, choreographed by Anatole Vilzak, burst to life, literally, when the three dancers burst out of paper Fabergé-esque eggs, always a crowd pleaser.

Ensemble efforts succeeded in French, complete with pastel costumes and twirling ribbons you either love or hate. New corps dancers Ami Yuki and Maggie Weirich joined Rebecca Rhodes for impeccably timed dancing, all the more notable when the choreography includes negotiating long, overhead ribbons.

Other enjoyable standouts included Madame du Cirque’s reticent dancing bear (Diego Cruz) and Chinese dance’s high leaping Lonnie Weeks. The company’s talented corps de ballet and Zahorian’s solos made Waltz of the Flowers a joy to watch.  

In Tomasson’s production, the final Grand Pas de Deux is danced by an adult Clara and her prince. Here, Frances Chung excelled with her technical precision and continuing artistic maturity, although she didn’t quite embody the same empathy and magic Karapetyan, as her partner, managed through the night. Technically, however, their performance was nothing short of stellar. Fish dives, partnered lifts and leaps, fouettés and tours; one gets a sense there is nothing this pair, and indeed, all of San Francisco Ballet, can’t do with great ease, ballet’s greatest illusion.