We all need our Nutcrackers, some years more than others. Uneasy social and political times, a devastating California wildfire season, and the untimely death of San Francisco’s mayor this week, make this one such year. Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Ballet’s opening night offered a deeply comforting, festive return to a sparkling production that never fails to delight.

Rubén Martín Cintas in Tomasson's <i>Nutcracker</i> © Erik Tommason
Rubén Martín Cintas in Tomasson's Nutcracker
© Erik Tommason

Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson set his 2004 production in 1915 San Francisco, when the city, recovering from the 1906 earthquake, hosted the Pan-Pacific International Exposition, featuring 80,000 exhibits from forty countries. Wendall K. Harrington’s backdrop projections, during the overture, offer historical glimpses of the era in the form of a slide show. Michael Yeargan’s scenic design gives us an elegant San Francisco living room with a broad, sweeping staircase, for the Stahlbaum home.

On Wednesday night, students of the San Francisco Ballet School were well-heeled and well-rehearsed in their movements, making the party scene as elegant as its setting. Martin Pakledinaz’ period costumes, too, added a refined touch. Tomasson’s production puts Clara (Olivia Callander) on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, a touch that serves the story well. A compelling Uncle Drosselmeyer (Rubén Martín Cintas) delivered requisite mystery and entertainment, presenting a marvelously pliant jack-in-the-box (Max Cauthorn), and Lauren Parrott’s sparkling, pink confection of a dancing doll. (Fun fact: her tutu weighs eighteen pounds.) Later, once Clara has fallen asleep on the couch, Drosselmeyer reappears in a shroud of fog to magically transform the living room with sweeping arm flourishes. As the Christmas tree grows and the music crescendos, the scenery rapidly shifts, revealing wildly oversized gifts, furniture. The Nutcracker, set beside the fireplace, has now turned into a life-sized one, by a magnified-times-ten fireplace. Year after year, I feel the same shivers of wonder and childlike delight in this scene. I can only imagine how the children in the audience must be feeling.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's <i>Nutcracker</i> © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker
© Erik Tomasson

John Paul Simeon’s comically menacing King of the Mice and his minions delivered drama and antics during the battle scene. Joseph Walsh, as the Nutcracker Prince, revived after the Mouse King’s demise, bore the perfect touch, with eloquent body language, chaîné turns that expressed his joy at being alive, and adoration toward Clara, his savior. Walsh holds enormous appeal as a performer. He’s a dancer of tremendous versatility and value on a roster that has undergone seismic changes in the past few years.

Tomasson’s Land of Snow is a dazzler, and James F. Ingalls’ lighting design adds the perfect touch, amid a wintery snowfall – 150 pounds of artificial flakes wafting down. The corps ensemble in pale tulle skirts ran, leapt and jeted before disappearing in a flash, replaced by others. Frances Chung and Vitor Luiz as Snow Queen and King were a sure-footed couple, with impeccably partnered pirouettes, sisonne lifts and leaps. Equally impressive, in Act Two’s opener, was Sugar Plum Fairy Sasha de Sola, whose piqués arabesques, turns and port de bras were all elegance and loveliness amid her subjects—dragonflies, ladybugs, butterflies—in the garden of the Crystal Palace.

Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in Tomasson's <i>Nutcracker</i> © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in Tomasson's Nutcracker
© Erik Tomasson

Act Two never feels dull or lagging, thanks not just to the choreography and Yeargan’s pleasingly minimalist scenery, but to the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and music director Martin West, for their stirring rendition of Tchaikovsky’s score. Spanish dance always pleases, with Max Cauthorn, Alexandre Cagnat, Mingxuan Wang, Isabella DeVivo and Norika Matsuyama in a brisk pas de cinq. French dancers (Kimberly Marie Olivier, Maggie Weirich, Ami Yuki) found marvelous synchronicity on Wednesday with their twirling ribbon sticks, creating perfect, round circles in unison. Arabian dancers Benjamin Freemantle and John-Paul Simoens demonstrated mirror-like synchronicity in their moves after carrying in a giant Aladdin’s lamp, from which a sinuous Ludmila Bizalion emerged. Lonnie Weeks jumped sky-high in the Chinese dance, and Russian dancers Esteban Hernandez, Blake Kessler and Myles Thatcher burst out of paper Fabergé-esque eggs to cavort in this beloved holdover from the 1986 production, choreographed by Anatole Vilzak. 

In Tomasson’s production, a magic armoire transforms the adolescent Clara into an adult incarnation of herself, who goes on to dance the Grand Pas de Deux with her prince. Maria Kochetkova always excels here, both in technique and sensibility. One feels as though they are truly watching a young girl transformed. She is a supremely talented dancer, and with Joseph Walsh, delivered a highly satisfying performance, with power, grace and finesse, through tricky lifts, fish dives, fouettés and airborne tours. It was a performance I didn’t want to see end. But with the rousing finale came an assurance that, at least for now, all was right with the world.