No matter how old you are, a child’s excitement invariably comes over you upon entering San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House on Nutcracker opening night. It’s not just the holiday feeling, or pride in the fact that San Francisco Ballet can boast the USA’s first full-length production of the ballet (created in 1944). It’s also that Nutcracker season signals the company’s return to its home stage since season’s end last May. It’s a long time to wait. Here, finally is our first glimpse of new dancers, familiar faces promoted to higher rank, and the reassuring sight of longtime dancers that many a young audience member has grown up watching. In short, it’s a thrilling night. 

Artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s 2004 production is a quintessential San Francisco retelling of the familiar story, set in 1915 during which time the city hosted the Panama Pacific Exposition, an event featuring 80,000 exhibits from more than forty countries. References appear in Wendall K. Harrington's slideshow projections during Tchaikovsky’s overture. During Act 1, in the Stahlbaums’ living room’s cabinet we see dolls from exotic parts of the world, foretelling who will appear in Act II. When Dr. Stahlbaum plugs in the electric lights on the Christmas tree, the dazzled reaction from both adults and children remind us that this was once a rare spectacle. Later, Act II reveals an elegant, minimalist set (designed by Michael Yeargan) that evokes the image of a crystal pavilion, many of which could be found during the Exposition.

Like the scenery, Tomasson’s choreography throughout is uncluttered, classical and elegant. Act I moves at a pleasing clip, enhanced by a vivid, charismatic Uncle Drosselmeyer (Rubén Martin Cintas) and students of the San Francisco Ballet School, who danced and moved efficiently. Drosselmeyer’s dancing dolls (Myles Thatcher, Lauren Parrott, Hansuke Yamamoto) helped keep the scene lively. 

Martin West conducted the San Francisco Ballet Symphony, and they were in their element Saturday night, particularly in the Christmas-tree-growing sequence that culminates in a spectacular, blink-and-you’ve-missed-it scenery shift that seems to shrink Clara (Anna Javier) and Drosselmeyer to the size of mice. It's brilliantly done. In the ensuing battle scene, the mice were so entertaining, I almost found myself rooting for them. Alexander Reneff-Olson’s Mouse King, in particular, stole the scene with his dictator-king antics, energy and theatrical death. 

Tomasson's Land of Snow is a feast for the eyes. Principals Mathilde Froustey and Carlo di Lanno were a gorgeous, impeccable Snow Queen and King in one of the most reliably spectacular sections of this production. Between pas de deux passages, the corps ensemble in ice-blue tulle skirts leapt, ran and sautéd through ever-increasing snowfall that approached whiteout conditions, augmented by James F. Ingalls’ lighting.

Act II brought its usual treats, made colorful through Martin Packledinaz’ costumes. The ladybugs, butterflies and dragonflies, students of the San Francisco Ballet School, looked both adorable and accomplished. Spanish Dance whirled with energy, the men (Max Cauthorn, Steven Morse, Myles Thatcher) in black velvet toreador costumes, the women (Jahna Frantziskonis, Ellen Rose Hummel) in flared skirts which they swished around with mischievous grins. Arabian sizzled, with Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Anthony Vincent supporting an elegant, sinuous WanTing Zhao. Zhao, reprising the role from last year, was promoted to soloist at the end of last season, and her already refined dancing seemed to reflect the upgrade.

Other newly promoted soloists include Francisco Mungamba, who devoured the stage with his leaps and high jumps in Chinese Dance, and Wei Wang, part of the trio of Russian dancers (with Benjamin Freemantle and John-Paul Simoens), who produced a series of fantastic split jumps that grew ever more airborne. Russian Dance, a holdover from previous staging, choreographed by Anatole Vilzak, is a crowd-pleaser, each dancer bursting out of a paper Fabergé egg in the opener – another blink-and-you-miss-it moment. 

The Sugar Plum Fairy in Tomasson’s production takes the role of soloist within Waltz of the Flowers, and Sofiane Sylve danced the role beautifully. One of my favorite performers to watch, her every step and gesture seem polished and nuanced. Another winning performance for the night was Vanessa Zahorian, dancing as the adult Clara in the final Grand Pas de Deux, with Nutcracker Prince Carlos Quenedit, a late replacement for an injured Davit Karapetyan. Zahorian celebrates her twenty-year anniversary with the company this season, and audiences adore her. One reason she’s so beloved, besides her winsome looks and fine dancing, is that she's danced with the company her entire career, starting from the corps. And oh, how the audience loves to watch one of its dancers rise from the ranks to the top.

With the launch of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker, let the holiday season truly begin.