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The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition

Happy as Snow
A Joyous Nutcracker Opening

San  Francisco Ballet
San Francisco Opera House
San Francisco, California
November 28, 2003

By Paul Parish
Copyright ©2003 by Paul Parish

The "scene" at the Opera House this year was not the huge Macy's-style array of chocolates and desserts, mummers and carolers thronging the passage-ways which made it a struggle to get to your seat back in the dot-com years. Opening night last Friday was well-attended, festive, and joyous, but strangely old-fashioned—not quite as exciting as recently, and with no first glimpses of new stars on the roster. But by the end of the evening, I found myself really liking it, thinking of it as "our show," and wondering if we're going to miss it when Helgi Tomasson's new production comes in next year.

Our Nutcracker is a big old-fashioned production, with a warm heart and the virtues of the generation that won World War II. It's generous to the core, and it's amazing to see how intricate it all is. The show's a miracle of logistics, a marvellous contraption with many moving parts—each little bit does its job, and the whole thing goes off like clockwork. Nutcracker goes up a couple of times a day from now till New Year's. New dancers will get worked in at the school shows (I first saw the fabulous Guennadi Nedviguine at an 11 AM show, the house filled with children and old folks and dancers.) It gets tooled up every year (a few lifts get changed, I thought I detected new business for the itsy-bitsy child at the party scene), but it's hardly changed since this production (the fourth) was new in 1986—well, Jose Varona's designs were new in 1988. The show is clearly the child of its predecessors, going back to Willam Christensen's production which was unveiled Christmas Eve, 1944 (with Jocelyn Vollmar as the Snow Queen and Gisella Caccialanza as the Sugar Plum Fairy).

Most readers of Danceview will know that Willam Christensen's was the first complete Nutcracker in the U.S, and may be familiar with the charming story of Christensen's meeting with Balanchine and Danilova, who told him what they remembered from the version they knew from the Maryinsky. (Danilova in her memoirs tells how she took off her shoes and started to show some of the combinations and Balanchine said, "No, no, Choura, let him make up his own version.")

Our current version is Helgi Tomasson's modest reshaping of Lew Christensen's second version, with the elaborately "storybook" design (in lower middle-brow taste) by Jose Varona. What it's got in common with Balanchine's later version, and with Ivanov's, is an upper-middle-class Victorian household, an elaborate, HUGE family Christmas party, a lot of real children (including a Clara played by a real little girl), pre-Freudian psychology—and of course, stage magic, and lots of it.

Nutcracker is premised on the charm of miniaturization (you can hear it in the music, which is mostly scored for chamber orchestra and at key points imitates clockwork sounds, NB the "warnings' in the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy). The Christensens understood how the mechanism of ballet technique resembles clockwork, and used it cleverly to create a sense of the marvelous, along with magic tricks they'd picked up in their years in vaudeville.

After years of seeing it, I'm still impressed by Christensen's precision in directing your eye over that crowded Christmas party. From the old lady who grabs herself a comfy chair early on, to the earthy young woman rubbing her stomach ("I'm so full!") as she goes up to greet Clara's father while a more serious woman crosses behind to say "Hi" to the girls, whom she obviously likes as people, the beautifully crafted hubbub of a full-dress family gathering was only the first instance of an intricately wrought order that looks as overflowingly bounteous as Nature. You see emotions erupt, fantasies get stimulated, in realistic settings. Drosselmayer (a known "magician") brings on his big clock-work figures through some trap-door illusions that involve getting the smallest tykes to venture into the empty box, to prove that it's empty, when lo! and behold, when you lift the lid again, out jumps a dancing bear (Jonathan Mangosing, who was wonderful) with a tambourine. (Amanda Schull—yes, the star of Center Stage—was perfect as the ballerina doll.)

I must own up here to a feeling that Christensen's first act pales before Balanchine's, but in fact, I consider Balanchine's to be not only a remarkable work of art, but one of HIS finest. It's curious that a Christmas party should bring out a willingness in Balanchine to work whole-heartedly in an old-fashioned sentimental mode, since the same is true of that other great modernist, James Joyce, in his tale of a Dublin Christmas party ("The Dead"), a story that shows him the equal of Tolstoy.

Christensen's version is aw shucks by comparison, a little corny: but there are juicy roles all over the place. Ashley Wheater is marvelous as the father, proud of his daughter, forbearing but firm with Fritz (the child who played him bears the name Django Allegretti, and he lived up to it; indeed, he would have stolen the first act in any other show, making stunning leaps at Clara's doll, only to be caught in mid-air by Wheater, except that the itsy-bitsy girl- party-guest had stage-craft FAR beyond her years and upstaged everybody else.).

SFB's Nutcracker has been blind-cast for at least a decade. I remember the late Christopher Boatwright (who was African-American) as Dr Stahlbaum, Leslie Young (who's Chinese-American) as the lady of the house. I have never seen blind-casting work so well—it is simply never a problem. This year's finest characterization came from Chidozie Nzerem, who really looked like a Victorian gentleman at a Christmas party. (Nzerem's grandfather taught at Alcorn State College in Lorman, Mississippi, so he had an excellent model to study.)

The first act is long, but it has a powerful sweep to it. The party scene swells and subsides, the kids get their presents and get over-stimulated, the Grandfather Dance rounds things off, the guests go home good and tired, and Clara can't sleep, comes looking for the Nutcracker, dozes off, the tree grows spectacularly (very good tree). The battle scene has been kitsched up so it's rather thick, but Clara (Jessica Lester) stood up to the Mouse King bravely. From there things pick up decidedly.

Christensen's Snow scene is superlative. The change of scene is an unveiling, the pas de deux is brilliant and thrilling—huge overhead lifts that traverse the stage, with travelling terre-a-terre steps that sweep round it.  It's a magnificent change of pace to see movement on such a grand scale by people who can use all that space. Christensen's greatest gift was his musicality, and after that came an unerring sense of when to move beneath yourself and when to travel. What makes the snow pas so CLEAN is the way the dancers scour the stage. The two dancers use ALL the space, and then, when the music speeds up, the storm of snowflakes whirls and scurries and eddies in an enormously satisfying way. The dancers spring and dart and careen around themselves at top speed, they come whistling in in little pas de basques bent over, brushing the floor with their hands, and fly out of that with lacy footwork that reminds me of Ashton's: VERY fast accurate footwork that's quite, quite different from Balanchine's style. And snowflakes are falling from the flies so thick it's like visible laughter, and then things calm down, the snow queen (Julie Diana) sweeps round the stage gently in turns on half-toe, whirls in a supported pirouette, opens out into attitude and extends her arms as if to offer the entire proceedings to us all as the ballet's Christmas present to the community. Diana is entirely capable of making a grand gesture like this—indeed, it matched Jim Sohm's at the beginning of the act, when (as Drosselmeyer, standing in front of a forecurtain) he doffed his hat to us all and invited us to come inside and see the show.

In Konfiturenberg, the international world of interesting tastes behaves for Clara as if ethnic differences did not imply conflict and huge bursts energy do not mean crashing into things or breaking your.sister's toys out of spite. It's an image of people being different and getting along (which suits San Francisco very well). Again it's blind-cast.  None of the Russians were Russian, but all were wonderful in the Trepak (Pascal Molat, Pablo Piantino, and James Sofranko) that Anatole Vilzak choreographed for the show. The Chinaman, who comes on drawing a pretty little cart was danced by the brilliant technician Hansuke Yamamoto, and for his labors, the ladies who were sitting in it pull it off-stage as he pulls a fan out and cools off.

Our Arabian is a Nautch dance cum vanishing act—where did she come from, where did she go?—in a blue and gold harem outfit covered with jewels; Leslie Young's wreathing arms were like smoke, which is to my mind the essence of coffee. It's very fine. Spanish features three boys springing about in effacé attitude and ladies swishing their skirts and doing back bends.

Tina LeBlanc has come back from having a baby and is dancing wonderfully. As the butterfly in the Waltz of the Flowers (not as interesting a dance as Snow by any means, generally speaking) she continued to expand her emotional range into the tender and delicate-once known for her pyrotechnics, Le Blanc is becoming more and more an artist with gentle and playful sides to her stage personality. As she matures, she is getting younger at heart.

Yuan-Yuan Tan made the Sugar Plum Fairy a delicate and gracious, fantastic creature. Her variation was a miracle of fine articulation, accuracy, like the finest jeweler's handicraft. She had some difficulty with a long string of turns in the coda, but it didn't matter, especially since Vadim Solomakha, her cavalier, adored her with such a generous, open-hearted way of doing everything. They both had the spirit right.

My friend Ariana, who's a great social dancer and has done a few years of modern dance, had never seen Nutcracker before. She was stunned. It made her want to go take a ballet class, learn to fly about like that. Seems to me a high recommendation.


The party scene:  Jim Sohm as Herr Drosselmeyer. Photo: Chris Hardy

Julie Diana and Zachary Hench as the Snow Queen and Snow King. Photo:  Chris Hardy

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 10
December 1,, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Paul Parish




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last updated on October 7, 2003