Awe and Enchantment Open San Francisco Ballet's 75th Year of Nutcracker


December 12, 2019—A gathering of Claras, showers of red and white balloons, nostalgic scenes of San Francisco, exuberant dancing, and an enthusiastic audience all contributed to yesterday's opening night of the 75th anniversary of America's first full-length Nutcracker. On Christmas Eve, 1944, San Francisco Ballet launched what would become one of America's most treasured Christmas traditions—The Nutcracker. Wednesday's opening night celebration included 25 past performers of the role of Clara, the girl whose Christmas Eve dream instills awe and enchantment. Free gifts to the audience included San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker Christmas wrapping paper, chocolates, and commemorative program books.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker  © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker © Erik Tomasson

In seventy-five years this beloved classic has been through four previous incarnations. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's current production, which premiered in 2004, is the fifth version presented by the Company. Three-hundred glamorous costumes designed by Martin Pakledinaz enhanced the evening's magic; Drosselmeyer's coat alone cost $11,000 to make. The Snow Queen's tutu features 300-500 Swarovski crystals that required 80 hours of hand stitching. With few exceptions, every San Francisco Ballet dancer will dance over the course of this year's thirty-one performances of Nutcracker.

On opening night, Tiit Helimets made for an impressive and convincing Uncle Drosselmeyer. Abby Cannon as Clara was every bit the graceful, charming, and guileless young girl we've come to expect Clara to be. Queen and King of the Snow Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo Di Lanno made an elegant introduction in a silver chariot drawn by dancers costumed as silver horses. Their pas de deux was perfect and ended all too soon. Sasha De Sola spread elegance and charm as the Sugar Plum Fairy; her solos were a delight.

Sasha De Sola in Tomasson's Nutcracker  © Erik Tomasson
Sasha De Sola in Tomasson's Nutcracker © Erik Tomasson

As the Arabian dancer, Kimberly Marie Olivier was smoking sultry in a clingy yet revealing turquoise harem costume. Sinuously emerging from an oversized, smoking Aladdin's lamp, she partnered with Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Steven Morse in one of the more memorable performances of the evening.

The Russian dancers are always a big hit as they burst out of huge Fabergé eggs. Following that explosive entrance, Esteban Hernandez continued to wow the audience with his split jumps and squats based on traditional Russian folk dancing.

Esteban Hernandez in Tomasson's Nutcracker  © Erik Tomasson
Esteban Hernandez in Tomasson's Nutcracker © Erik Tomasson

But there were a few disappointments. In dancing the Grand Pas de Deux Mathilde Froustey missed a few steps and slipped a couple of times, once when partnering with Luke Ingham and again in a solo. As she is a very capable and professional dancer, it looked like Froustey had insufficient time to rehearse this role.

The traditional Chinese segment of Nutcracker productions everywhere has been under criticism for perceived racist stereotyping, such as the dancers extending their index fingers in what was supposed to be characteristically Chinese. Gone from this production are any such questionable representations. Dressed in Chinese costumes, a handful of student dancers, led by soloist Lonnie Weeks, swirled around in a faux lion dance while Weeks performed a dance whose only Chinese element is that it ended in a kung-fu pose. This version, while unobjectionable, comes off as flat and only reminiscently Chinese. Tomasson could draw some inspiration from classical Chinese dance.

A particular audience favorite in every performance is Madame Du Cirque, last night played by Louis Schilling, dressed in an enormous circus tent. In some other productions this character is known by other names, such as Mother Ginger, and her many children secretly move along within her skirts until they surprise the audience by suddenly rushing out. In the current production the children, dressed in harlequin costumes, dance alongside her while a dancing bear emerges from her skirts and the children only once quickly run in and out under her enormous skirts. The bear, performed by Diego Cruz on opening night, is delightfully comedic and displays real skill. But the surprise of the emerging bear is not the same as the children suddenly bursting from the gigantic skirts.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker  © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker © Erik Tomasson

Of course, the corps de ballet as Snowflakes and Waltzing Flowers are themselves worth the price of admission, beautiful to see in their flowing, white dresses or multicolored petals as they dance in joy and elegance. The Snowflakes are especially enchanting amid falling snow. And snow it did. Each performance of this year's Nutcracker uses 600 pounds of artificial snow. Elise Gillum, a Clara in 2009-2010 performances, when asked what she liked most about this year's Nutcracker, said, "The snow. It's the best I've seen." Did watching this performance bring back memories? "It was a great time in my life," Elise said, "I loved every minute of it." That about says it for everyone at last night's Nutcracker.

San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker runs through December 29.