San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker is not “just another ballet.” Thirty-three performances between Dec. 8 and 27 are guaranteed to spread a very special kind of holiday cheer.
After the creation of the work in St. Petersburg in 1892 by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, SF Ballet, the country’s oldest ballet company, premiered it in the U.S. in 1944 in Willam Christensen’s choreography. Except for the pandemic in 2020, San Francisco’s Nutcracker has returned every year, featuring casts of hundreds and attracting hundreds of thousands in the audience. (Even during the War Memorial reconstruction after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the company managed to find another venue.)
Perhaps most significantly, generations of young children have experienced the performing arts for the first time thanks to the production, dazzled by dancers, spectacular staging, and the sound of a large orchestra.
During one of my 40 annual visits, a dozen years ago, I asked Jiwon Baxter, then 7, and Marcus Weiss, then 10, about their Nutcracker experiences. Jiwon noted there was a “lot of pretty music,” but she found the fight with the Mouse King too scary. “But I like it when Uncle Drosselmeyer does magic and turns the lights on. I like it when Clara and the Nutcracker go into the Land of Sweets, and I like the twinkling snow fairies and the ‘Waltz of the Flowers.’”
Marcus recalled his early youth (four years before, at age 6) and his first Nutcracker: “The Snow Queen was so elegant, and watching children dancing around the giant Christmas tree — which grew and grew — was exciting. I remember the waltz music made me happy inside.”
SF Ballet Music Director Martin West, who has conducted hundreds of performances over the years — and is in the pit again this season — said: “Far from being a chore, conducting Tchaikovsky’s astonishing score over and over is one of my true pleasures. Every year I am amazed how much there is still to discover in this masterpiece.”
The current production is again Helgi Tomasson’s 2004 choreography, with Michael Yeargan’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes. What’s new this year is that rather than announcements week to week, casting is being listed for the entire run, featuring Yuan Yuan Tan, Henry Sidford, Nikisha Fogo, Misa Kuranaga, Joseph Walsh, Isabella DeVivo, Lucas Erni, Sasha Mukhamedov, Dores André and Max Cauthorn, among others.
SF Ballet will present a special performance in the Nutcracker season, “a welcoming performing arts experience for people with autism, sensory input disorders, sensory sensitivities, or other physical, cognitive, or developmental disabilities, and their families, friends, and caretakers on Dec. 21.”
The Nutcracker is also significant for the survival of ballet companies — up to 40 percent of the budget at some of the country’s ballet companies can be covered by these performances. In the case of SF Ballet, factoring in the War Memorial’s new capacity of 3,006 — after replacing all the seats and reconfiguring the orchestra — times 33 performances, with prices ranging from $19 (hard to find) to $495 in the usually capacity-occupied auditorium, the expected income is over $2 million (against considerable expenses), helping with the company’s $56 million budget.
Much as the 2020 Nutcracker and the entire ballet season were missed as the War Memorial closed for the pandemic, streaming came to the rescue as an estimated 1.5 million viewers watched company performances through the SF Ballet@Home platform.
After this year’s Nutcracker run, the 2023 season opens with a gala on Jan. 19, and performances begin on Jan. 20. This is the first season with Tamara Rojo as artistic director, succeeding Tomasson, who held the position for 35 years and programmed the 2023 season before leaving. Rojo’s first programming and choreography will begin with the 2024 season.
Highlights of the 2023 season include the “next@90” festival, the number referencing the company’s age (just a decade younger than SF Opera). Curated by Tomasson, the festival features nine choreographers, some with a career of distinction with the company — Val Caniparoli, Yuri Possokhov, Nicolas Blanc, Danielle Rowe — and some debuting — Jamar Roberts, Robert Garland, Bridget Breiner, Claudia Schreier, and Yuka Oishi. The event is similar to SF Ballet’s world-renowned 1995 “UNited We Dance” (which hosted 12 major dance companies from around the globe) and the 2018 “Unbound” festival of commissioned new works.
The season also includes the story ballets Giselle, Cinderella, and Romeo and Juliet in addition to a mixed bill featuring the stage premiere of Myles Thatcher’s Colorforms, featured during the company’s 2021 digital season.