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San Francisco Ballet - 'The Nutcracker'

Taking the Fifth – America’s Original Purveyor of Nutcracker Unveils New Production

by Dean Speer

December 17, 2004 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

With much fanfare, holiday décor, and the transformation of the block around the Opera House into a Winter Wonderland, it was with a sense of giddy glee that I returned to the fountainhead of America’s love affair with “The Nutcracker” and to San Francisco Ballet in anticipation of seeing their new $3.5 million-dollar production – its fifth in the three score years this full-length ballet has been on these shores.

West Coast ballet patriarch Willam Christensen could probably never have guessed the immense popularity this ballet would enjoy when he made the first, complete version in America in 1944 for this very stage and company. [He did comment later that it had not just become popular, but “an epidemic!”]

It’s a Production

The festivities began with a fanfare – brasses trumpeting and heralding the doors’ opening to the pressing throngs milling about on the Van Ness sidewalk. The gilded, barrel-vaulted ceiling of the opera house foyer was competing with the gilded patrons who were enjoying the strategically placed tables of holiday chocolate treats and goodies, strolling characters such as a Nutcracker Prince on stilts, a duo white and pink Glinda, and a brass ensemble of musicians serenading.

Clearly, the audience was up for this and we were not disappointed. A collective murmur of agreement went up as the first notes of the score were struck at 8:10 p.m. Beginning with a frontdrop of an early 1900s postcard, whose middle became a slide show projection that brought us 1915 San Francisco, its World’s Fair, and to a clever “Photoshopped” slide of street shops. One shop is outlined in red: Drosselmeyer’s Time Shop. I thought this opening was particularly clever and enjoyed it very much.

The drop lifts to reveal the interior of the shop with Drosselmeyer himself putting the finishing touches on a toy. A mother and a daughter were coming in to do some last-minute holiday shopping (some things never change!). This scene then changes to a street of “painted ladies” (Victorian houses, and there are 100 painted Victorian windows in Act I) with a nurse tending a perambulator, a trio of strolling nuns, an Irish policeman walking his beat, and a few heading into the home of the Stahlbaums. Away goes this view and – voila – we are in a parlor which features a grand, curving staircase from which Clara makes her running and enthusiastic entrance. It’s a happy party scene with Drosslemeyer doing magic tricks to entertain the children, a theme which hints at Act II.

This same parlor transforms – by magician Drosselmeyer who levitates out of a trap door in front of the growing Christmas tree, eliciting many oohs and ahs – into a set resembling a tilted pop-up book for the inevitable battle and it’s great. There is, for example, a giant fireplace 22 feet tall and 19 feet at its base – the size of two San Francisco cable cars stacked on top of each other. Everyone liked how the mice gradually and cutely appeared by cautious sniffing around and then become more assertive. The battle yields to a shimmering Snow Scene that looks and feels like we’re really out there in a snowstorm. Just the right colors and intensities with lots of generously falling fake snow. Curtain. End of Act I.

It’s Not Mother Hubbard’s, So Why Was It ...

The production values in Act II felt a little thin to me and, indeed, some audience members around me were commenting that it seemed bare. Did they run out of money and/or ideas? Certainly, in comparison to Act I and to the expectations that it built for us, it did seem spare with only a colored cyclorama and a hint of a crystal pavilion hanging from the flies. I think we all had expected something more physical and lavish (and in particular, to have been transported to the 1915 World’s Fair). We did get the sense that some of the national dances were perhaps some of the kinds of things we could have seen not far from the Midway.

Some of the elements for the individual divertissements were quite good, however. The huge Spanish fan, the female Arabian dancer actually being a genie and coming out of a magic lamp, a Chinese Dragon, the trepak dancers literally bursting out of three Fabergé eggs, and Mother Ginger being “Madame du Cirque” and her dress being a Big Top. We all LOVED the delightful surprise of having a Dancing Bear emerge out of her tent – cued by applause, rather than more Buffoons (who were already on stage).

Ah, But The Dancing

All of the dancing and acting assignments received first-rate execution. Ashley Wheater’s Drosselmeyer was a clearly etched and spirited character. Who could forget Yuan Yuan Tan and Ruben Martin’s glorious, regal and icy Snow Queen and King and his exciting and fast coupé jetés off into the upstage left wing? Or to have not thoroughly enjoyed Gonzalo Garcia’s Nut Prince and the King of Mice, gleefully danced by Kirill Zaretskiy (who enters and exits from the prompter’s box)? Muriel Maffre’s Sugar Plum Fairy, who also doubled as the Dewdrop in Waltz of the Flowers, was the stuff that truly inspires visions of her species dancing in our heads and for gazillions of little girls to wish for tutus and pointe shoes. Ah, and the Grand Pas de Deux with Tina LeBlanc and Gonzalo Garcia was worth waiting to the end of the act. However, the dancers were given, for the most part, choreographic creations that did not rise to their level.

Strong Ideas, Weak Choreography

The best things about this new production are its concepts and the team of talented and creative artists that put it together. The weakest part I found was in the actual choreography, particularly the two big dances (Snowflakes and Flowers). I also thought that the opening of Act II could have been and still could be made stronger by having the dancing children do more than kneel on the floor and flap their hands and arms. They needed patterns with simple steps and to be moving around lots and right away. They stayed stationary too long and this added to the effect that this act’s production was bare and they forgot to dress the stage before the curtain went up. It was a visual non-sequitur.

The two big, group dances need more choreographic variety. There was too much unison and reliance on grouping in lines. The ensemble work needs more patterns, more use of levels, more varying of the rates of speed [the choreography should both go with the music and “counter” it]. Too often, phrases begin on the obvious downbeats. While the choreography is pleasant enough, it was often banal, bland in need of more spice to be more of a challenge to these amazing dancers. And to be made more thrilling to us eager and supportive audiences members.

Music, Music, Music

The SFB Orchestra was glorious, nimble, and sounded in good form, as did the Boys Chorus which added so much to the Snow Scene. How nice it was to have the score played with the composer's original orchestration. I also thought the tempos were quite reasonable and nice.

A Memorable Evening

Making the choreography stronger is a fixable thing. I’m confident that I, my friends, colleagues, and the citizenry of greater San Francisco will enjoy this magical, new “Nutcracker” for many years to come.

Edited by Jeff.

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