It’s a big year at San Francisco Ballet, as the company celebrates its 75th anniversary of America’s first full-length Nutcracker, and festivities were in full swing Wednesday night at the War Memorial Opera House. Before the curtain rose, 35 former Claras from past productions, recognizable in their white satin sashes, stood to rousing applause. There were free commemorative program books for all and, post-show, a balloon drop. It was, otherwise, the same classic production and it’s a perennial delight.

Hansuke Yamamoto in Tomasson's <i>Nutcracker</i> © Erik Tomasson
Hansuke Yamamoto in Tomasson's Nutcracker
© Erik Tomasson

Artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker, now in its fifteenth year, bears a distinct San Francisco stamp. It’s set during the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. A slide show superimposed on the curtains (projection design Wendall K. Harrington) features images from the 1915 event, inserting us right into the era, where the Stahlbaum family is celebrating Christmas Eve with a party in their Edwardian living room. Michael Yeargan’s scenic design and the late Martin Pakledinaz’ sumptuous costumes create a scene so charming, you just want to climb inside and stay in that world all evening and beyond.

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

Tomasson gives us an adolescent Clara (Abby Cannon), on the cusp of discovery, and it ties well into the story. The Pan-Pacific Expo featured 80,000 exhibits from more than forty countries, a viewing experience destined to color Clara’s dreams. A particularly appealing detail – and this production is chock-full of appealing details – is a red-painted cabinet in the Stahlbaum’s living room, with glass windows through which you can see decorative dolls, Arabian, Spanish and Russian in costume and characteristic, a hint of what’s to come in Act 2. It’s an intelligent, elegant Nutcracker, with appeal for kids and adults alike.

In Act 1, Tiit Helimets as “Uncle” Drosselmeyer injected both mystery and lively energy into the scene. Lauren Parrott’s dancing doll and Max Cauthorn’s jack-in-the-box proved a reliable delight, as did the Mouse King (Nathaniel Remez) and his minions in the battle scene. Luke Ingham, as the Nutcracker prince, released from his wooden incarnation, danced with precision and control all evening. Tomasson’s Land of Snow never fails to delight and Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno imbued their performance with a grace and finesse that brought up the quality even higher. The amount of snow falling is hilarious and adorably excessive; the closing tableau is an image no audience members will ever forget.

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

Act 2, set in the Garden of the Crystal Pavilion, brought no new surprises, but it’s always fun to hear newcomers gasp in surprise as the three Russian dancers burst out of their life-sized Fabergé eggs in this delightful holdover from the 1986 production (Anatole Vilzak choreographer). French dancers Kamryn Baldwin, Maggie Weirich and Ami Yuki admirably handled their long ribbon sticks through their dance. The Spanish Dance dazzled but seemed over too soon for the two females, much like in Arabian, where Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Steven Morse carried on a giant Aladdin’s lamp, then moved in graceful, synchronized movements before coaxing from the lamp a sinuous, sensuous Kimberly Marie Olivier. Lonnie Weeks in the Chinese Dance filled the stage with his exuberant leaps and aerial cartwheels, as surefooted and soft-landing as a cat. The Waltz of the Flowers gets my vote as some of Tchaikovsky’s best music in the entire score, of which conductor Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra delivered a gorgeous rendition. Sasha de Sola was an elegant, impeccable Sugar Plum Fairy, who, in this production, appears as the soloist among the waltzing flowers, and not in the grand pas de deux. Instead, a transformed adult Clara dances, performed on Wednesday night by the lyrical Mathilde Froustey, whose expressive body language, technical finesse, and appealing warmth easily overshadowed the occasional fumble she encountered. Both she and partner Ingham delivered crowd-pleasing solos and the coda was a delight of propulsive energy.

Mathilde Froustey and Luke Ingham in Tomasson's <i>Nutcracker</i> © Erik Tomasson
Mathilde Froustey and Luke Ingham in Tomasson's Nutcracker
© Erik Tomasson

A 75-year anniversary invites one to consider the night, 75 years earlier, when a determined, intrepid young company, led by artistic director Willam Christensen, took on a challenge, a heroic group effort during wartime that required the dancers to make their own costumes, even creating their own tights for this first American full-length Nutcracker. None of them could have known they were setting the wheels in motion for an annual holiday classic. But it did, and for that, we – particularly those of us in San Francisco – are grateful.

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