December 7, 2012
Tchaikovsky, rats, swords, tutus and all manner of fantasy regalia, onstage and off, reigned supreme last weekend as Nutcracker season began at the San Francisco Ballet and San Jose Ballet. San Francisco Ballet had a fine opening night Friday in this eighth season of Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s version, set in 1915 San Francisco, of the holiday classic. The cast was uniformly accomplished and generally enthusiastic. Frances Chung was a particular standout, however. Beautifully partnered by Davit Karapetyan in the Grand Pas de Deux, Chung, one of the company’s more recently anointed ballerinas, performed with a new confidence that showed in the warmth of her demeanor. Her speedy fouettes, as well as her willingness to risk everything in the climactic fish dive (it sounds better in French: temps de poisson) delighted the crowd.
But before all that, there’s the scene-setting, where you can almost smell the wintry chill in the streets, dispelled by the glowing houses on the hills, wherein party the well-mannered one per cent in all their holiday finery. At least at the Stahlbaums’ manse, there’s an old clockmaker, Uncle Drosselmeier (played by Damien Smith with pleasing craft and a twinkling eye), to shake things up a bit during the holiday rituals of socializing, flirting, dancing, and gift-giving. Thanks to Drosselmeier, dolls in Christmas boxes come to life (Lonnie Weeks, the clown; Clara Blanco, the soubrette; and Hansuke Yamamoto, the soldier).
Aside from functioning as annual cash cow, Nutcrackers the world over have another purpose: training youngsters in translating what they’ve learned in class to the stage, and, perhaps, to a future dance career. It’s great to see kids whose parents despair of them ever cleaning up their rooms moving so tidily through their paces. Nothing is left to chance, and yet everything feels spontaneous, and therefore charming. Such, anyway, is the case with the students from the San Francisco Ballet School, whose ensemble choreography demands concentration and talent.
The featured children were lovely as well. On opening night, Natasha Sheehan was just right as Clara, bringing a naturally sweet demeanor to the girl whose nutcracker doll sets all the sorcery in motion; her pesky brother Fritz (Atticus Simmons) proved an excellent counterpoint. The grownups, too, were thoroughly believable. Kids also populated the brigades of soldiers and mice. Corps dancer Sean Orza, the King of the Mice, was properly threatening and when vanquished by the Nutcracker Prince (Karapetyan), did one of the better dives into the orchestra pit in recent memory, feet twiddling desperately in midair as he descended.
The King and Queen of snow, Luke Ingham and Sarah Van Patten, exuded appropriate authority, and the corps of Snowflakes achieved all the momentum that Tomasson intended. San Francisco Ballet, by the way, deserves a flake with icicle cluster simply for the intensity of the storm — a pounding, swirling blanket of white, with whirling Snowflakes as its focal point — at its final moments. Equally meritorious is the team of horses (actually dancers) whose lovely sculptured heads seem made of crystal, pulling the sleigh that takes Clara on her journey to a land of flowers.
Sofiane Sylve displayed her trademark delicacy as the Sugar Plum Fairy, spreading light and magic before the many and most diverting divertissements, small groups of character dancers in Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, French and, most especially, Russian variations, with Daniel Deivision tearing up the stage as he soared and spun.
Tomasson’s Nutcracker, with its blithe pacing, superb dancing, and genuine heart (particularly in its final moment, when Clara awakens from her dream, safe at home, and ascends the living room staircase at her mother’s side) is a feast that never cloys. A pause here to honor the brilliant costume designer, Martin Pakledinaz (1953-2012) and to mention Michael Yeargan, scenic design; James F. Ingalls, lighting design; and Wendall K. Harrington, projection design. Kudos to conductor Martin West and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, surging brightly Friday night despite a couple of errant bleeps from the right side of the pit.
San Francisco, in case you’re new in town, was where the first United States production of the Nutcracker, choreographed by Willam Christensen, premiered — Dec. 24, 1944, right in the same spot, the War Memorial Opera House. Oh, what he started.