San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker: Less Sugary and More International

December 25, 2011

Although I love the NYC Ballet Nutcracker  and see more in it every year, SFB’s 2004 version by Helgi Tomasson was a refreshing change of pace. The whole production is less sticky sweet, the décor is elegant, and the story has both cogency and humor.

Vintage San Francisco

Like a huge storybook, a series of archival photos takes you into the world of 1915 San Francisco. The last photo shows “Drosselmeyer’s Clock Shop,” which opens onto the stage action, and we see Drosselmeyer wrapping up his precious nutcracker for a holiday party. It’s a wonderful use of Tchaikovsky’s overture.

Children of All Ages

Instead of most of the children being adorable 8-or-9-year-olds, there’s a more realistic range of ages and sizes at the party. This cuts the cute factor by half. These child performers seem to understand their actions better. Clara was played by 13-year-old Fiona Zhong, who seems old enough to really fall in love and dream about dancing with her prince someday.

Magical Entrances

The mice scamper in from every nook and cranny, including a hole in the floor. It is a truly creepy entrance—and a truly funny exit when the highly decorated mouse king crawls back into his hole to die. Oh, and he’s killed by a giant mousetrap, engineered by Clara.

The Nutcracker Prince makes his entrance as the third of Drosselmeyer’s mechanical dolls. Drosselmeyer puts the little nutcracker into a big box, waves his arms, and behold, the life-size Nutcracker Prince emerges to dance.

All three life-size dolls make an entrance in Clara’s dream too. They dash across the living room while she’s asleep on the sofa, and that’s how we know the Nutcracker Prince has gotten under her skin.

Also boxed in were the Russian dancers, who burst out of three large Fabergé-type eggs with a vigorous trepak. Interestingly, their choreography is by Anatole Vilzak of Ballets Russes fame—a holdover from SFB’s 1986 version.

The last character to emerge from a box is the Sugar Plum—oops I mean the Grand Pas de Deux. You see, the character named Sugar Plum Fairy welcomes Clara and her prince into the Garden of the Pavilion of Dreams, but later dances with the Flowers, so she’s also like Balanchine’s Dewdrop. The grand pas dancer, as in Ratmansky’s version for ABT,  is really Clara’s dream of her future self. Here Clara steps into an armoire, the armoire is turned around and, like a time machine, out steps the dazzling Yuan Yuan Tan, the ballerina who gets to dance with Clara’s Nutcracker Prince, in this case, the dashing Davit Karapetyan.

Elegant Design

Two or three gracefully arcing fragments hang overhead in the Pavilion of Dreams, inspired by the real Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. (The SFB Nutcracker Guide to Our City tells us that it’s the oldest wood and glass conservatory in North America.) Other than these few shapes by designer Michael Yeargan, the stage is empty. What a relief! I’ve never liked the super sugary set of Act II of the Balanchine version. It almost gives me a stomachache just to look at it. SFB’s minimal design allows the environment to change, lending each divertissement more of an international flavor. Two big black fans drop down for Spanish, and a five-person dragon (a SF Chinatown tradition) snakes through with Chinese. The Merlitons don’t get their own set design, but a hint of the Folies Bergères and a glimpse of the Can Can identify them as French.

It’s Her Dream

The last scene finds Clara just as we left her at the end of Act I: asleep on the sofa with the nutcracker doll in her arms. This makes for nice closure, reminding us of the romance and beauty of a young girl’s fantasy.

A Little More About SFB’s Dancers

This is a glorious company. The Snow Queen was danced with beautiful openness and strength by Frances Chung. Sarah Van Patten made a gracious Sugar Plum/Dewdrop. And Yuan Yuan Tan was mesmerizing in the grand pas (which thankfully, is kept intact in this production). I wish I had more time in the Bay Area to be able to see other casts.