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San Francisco Ballet - 'Nutcracker'

by Catherine Pawlick

December 21, 2005 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California

As the present year draws to a close amidst the hustle and bustle of American materialism, it is still possible to find a quiet moment alone during the Christmas season to pause and reflect on where we have been, what we have accomplished, what we would have done differently, and what we plan to do in the future. For some, consideration of times past produces wistful moments, inciting fond memories, and for others, it provides a sense of relief that times have changed for the better.

I have been living in St. Petersburg for a year and a half now, following the developments on the Mariinsky stage, Kirov foreign tours and internal Mariinsky changes. But, as a native San Franciscan, I was interested to return to my home turf this holiday season to sample what my “home company” is offering in terms of Yuletide performances. The last time I was in the Opera House was for the premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Continuum” approximately two years ago, so enough time has passed that I would be able to look at San Francisco Ballet with a fresh perspective.

As far as San Francisco Ballet’s history of “Nutcracker” developments go -- from the Christensen brothers’ heartfelt beginnings, through the Michael Smuin years, and on to Helgi Tomasson’s empirical reign -- I regretfully revert to joining the increasing number of native San Franciscans who long wistfully for times past following Wednesday night’s performance, and look upon current San Francisco Ballet productions with both disappointment for their lack of artistic insight, and disagreement with the artistic decisions and direction of the company as a whole.

It goes without saying that companies re-create classical ballets fairly often, but it is not very common to do so with the same production more than once. Helgi Tomasson constructed his second “Nutcracker” last year, in 2004, utilizing part of the company’s coffers to proffer to San Franciscans a fresh production, aimed undoubtedly at continuing box office sales and warming the hearts of Bay Area children.

In these two goals it succeeds. In Wednesday night’s performance the almost-full house included first-timers and repeat-comers, for whom seeing “Nutcracker” is as much a part of Christmas as decorating the tree, baking cookies and exchanging gifts. Judging purely by applause, one can argue that many people enjoyed what they saw. After all, there is a ballerina in a tutu and pointe shoes. There is a Nutcracker, there is a growing tree. What more could you ask for?

In fact, much more. The question here is not, or rather, should not be about selling tickets and drawing crowds, although for many ballet companies, that is the essence of the Nutcracker season: something they can count on for box office sales and much-needed revenue to support the remainder of the season. But the absence of a connection to San Francisco Ballet’s own historical traditions was felt despite the novelty of a brand new production complete with fresh costumes and sets, even in a version that has been specially localized for Bay Area audiences.

Those who have seen this latest version will argue that it is very San Franciscan. Tomasson opens the production with a black and white slideshow projected onto the curtain, with scenes from San Francisco at the turn of the last century – the Sutro Bath House, rows of Victorian houses, and so on. The curtain opens to Drosselmeyer’s workshop, and then shifts to a San Franciscan street, with more Victorian houses in the background.

As mentioned, Tomasson deserves credit for localizing this production in its initial scenes, but that localization is cosmetic. There are arguments for and against doing this to a holiday classic; no doubt other companies follow suit, not only for ‘Nutcracker’ but for other ballets as well. However, despite personal preferences (E.T. Hoffman’s tale was set in Germany, not in San Francisco. My preference is for classical ballet to adhere to the original setting as much as possible – others may prefer innovation every time), why not turn to some of the valuable pieces of ballet history that San Francisco has, and show the Bay Area some more of its own ballet traditions?

That San Francisco Ballet has been able to reach and maintain a stable financial footing is no longer news, and many would argue that Tomasson and the company’s Board are to thank for this. Their recent tours abroad, which included a successful stint in Paris this summer, attest to their growing financial position. The art of ballet, however, is not based on materialism, cash empires or international headlines. It is not an Olympic sport, a question of how many talented “athletes” one can attract onto one’s “team.” And yet, increasingly, it seems as if that is the goal.

San Francisco Ballet has its own school. Hundreds of Bay Area parents pay top dollar for their daughters (and sons) to attend the school, many of which hold professional aspirations and attend for that reason. The quality of the training is said to be excellent. But how many local dancers ever make it into San Francisco Ballet’s company? Out of the 70-member troupe you can count them on one hand. The result is a feeling of foreign-ness on our home turf. San Francisco Ballet warrants more local talent, not just that imported from other states or countries. Despite the company’s high standards, there are a vast number of ballet studios and schools in the Bay Area, many of whose graduates leave the Bay Area to dance in professional companies elsewhere. How exciting it would be if more locally grown artists were to dance in the company that represents where they began their dancing careers.

Perhaps the most cogent point is the company’s repertoire. Along with San Francisco Ballet’s increasing notoriety during Tomasson’s tenure, many new ballets have been added to its stock, some by George Balanchine and some by former or current company members – Yuri Possokhov and Julia Adam for example -- and by outside choreographers. Among all this fresh inspiration, the feeling nevertheless persists that much of what was unique to San Francisco has become increasingly buried in the past 20 years. Where are the darling additions that Lew Christensen created? The local flavor of those early ballets seems to be fading slowly into oblivion.

Christensen choreographed over 100 ballets for the company during his tenure.  Of those, ‘Jinx’ was performed here in 2002, almost as a token tribute to the past, but with a disappointing lack of flavor. Already, with the passage of time, something of “old SFB” had been lost. There is still, however, a host of other ballets that would be welcome back on stage at the War Memorial Opera House. Christensen’s “Beauty and the Beast” as a crowd-pleasing fairytale that I remember with fondness. Other ballets, like “Vivaldi Concerto Grosso” “Con Amore,” display Christensen’s capacity for comedy in ballets with a storyline, and works that San Francisco can claim as uniquely its own. These ballets are performed now by dancers at Barnard College and just south of us in Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley. Why not show them in S.F. proper, too?

But to return to the “Nutcracker,” my main objection to this production is using new choreography, when Christensen’s version, a historical tribute to San Francisco holiday seasons, could be shown just as easily.

Tchaikovsky was a talented composer –indeed, the composer for any classical ballet. Merely listening to his score is means for inspiration. Furthermore, his is not a complex musical composition: it is intuitive; his notes practically choreograph the ballet for you. Crescendos are clear, patterns are logical, notes are never muddled. When you hear the music for the growing Christmas tree, you can see the tree grow in your mind’s eye. When the Spanish dance comes on, it cannot be confused with the theme for the Sugar Plum Fairy, or the finale. Tchaikovsky’s music doesn’t only sing, it speaks, it tells us a story and ballet’s job is to illustrate that story in adherence to classical ballet traditions.

Most “Nutcracker” productions follow a certain sequence in the first act, and that choreography matches the composer’s music. Tomasson has altered this, not only in parts of the first act, but at points throughout. Crescendos, the most obviously grandiose moments in a score, are largely ignored. There is no separate Snow pas de deux, as the couple interweaves with the corps de ballet. The Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation, on December 21, left poor Vanessa Zahorian with very little to do on an empty stage -- a few pique passes and arabesques and she was finished. Most of all, the symphony of colors that graced the Christensen version in the “Waltz of the Flowers” was completely ignored. Instead of a rose-formation opening in unison, the 16 girls did a simple port de bras in canon, and the final 5 notes were unadorned except for the Sugar Plum Fairy’s slight arm movement.

Where was the brilliant beauty that comes from that most famous section of music? Why wasn’t it utilized to its fullest? One would have preferred to see the “oldie but goodie” Christensen version.

Act II has a moment of potential confusion in the rearrangement of roles. In the Christensen version, Clara watched during Act II and left the land of Sugar Plums happily. Here, Clara is given a crown by the Sugar Plum Fairy. She steps into a mirrored gazebo to fit the crown, the doors close behind her, and she emerges as a “big Clara” and dances with the Nutcracker prince. The Sugar Plum Fairy’s usual pas de deux is thus usurped, leaving the fairy with administrative duties, free to dance with the other flowers but without a cavalier of her own. This is awkward, as we’re introduced to a completely new dancer, replacing Clara, only at the ballet’s finale. In the Russian version, at least we meet the mature Clara as she meets the Prince, just after the battle with the Mouse King, so it makes sense that they later dance together during Act II.

The one highlight of this “Nut” is the Russian dance -- originally created by Anatole Vilzak -- which stands out for its panache. Three gigantic Fabergé eggs are rolled onstage, with paintings of historical Russian buildings are stretched flat across the front side of the eggs. When the music begins, three Russian Cossacks burst through the paper, tearing it open, jumping onstage and dancing until the music stops. It had the audience roaring more than any other section in the ballet.

Lest we forget, Lew Christensen pioneered ballet west of the Mississippi on a grand scale. It was he who created “Filling Station,” the first American ballet by an American dancer/choreographer on American dancers. In my mind, that is not insignificant.

When one considers what he built, as choreographer and artistic director, and the slew of ballets hecreated, it seems more of a mistake than ever for San Francisco to allow these historical cultural works to further fade into oblivion.  For Tomasson to overlook SFB’s own traditions – which are rich for those who take the time to dig them up – and all that they can offer is a travesty. One hopes that the company’s recent successes will allow it the luxury of reviving some Christensen classics, and returning to the stage of the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House some of what is rightfully due to San Francisco ballet audiences.

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