Sarah Van Patten as the Snow Queen
Roger Ebert said you should watch the Nutcracker twice in your life; once when you’re a child, and once when you’re a grandparent. I heartily disagree. Watching the SF Ballet’s Nutcracker reminded me of the fact that the Nutcracker never gets old, especially in this magical version, and watching it was like watching it for the first time all over again.
The ballet begins with an unrecognizable Damian Smith as Drosselmeier, pulling magic tricks out of thin air. He doesn’t have a dark air of mystery about him, like some versions, but is more like the fun uncle that happens to make grand gestures. The sets were beautiful, with scenic design by Michael Yeargan. Set in early 1900′s in San Francisco, the sets were complete with the characteristic San Francisco houses that added a personal local touch. Rory Hohenstein was the wonderfully pliable and bendy clown doll, who, when he reappears in Clara’s nightmare, transforms the same steps in a subtly spooky way. The children in the party scene are always charming, led by Jessica Cohen as Clara.
After the party scene, the music buzzes with anticipation, as the lights dim and everything grows larger than life, including Clara’s beloved Nutcracker. Remnants of reality disappear, as a dream world takes over. Mice appear from corners and behind presents, and Clara’s Nutcracker fights to defend her. Toy soldiers appear to help the Nutcracker, and Clara aids in positioning a huge mouse trap – the appearance of the mouse trap made Jen and me laugh out loud. With one snap onto the Mouse King’s leg (deliciously danced by David Arce), the Mouse King hammed it up by drawing out his death and disappearance into a trap door in the floor, to the audience’s applause.
Jamie Garcia Castilla, one of the recently promoted soloists, made an impressive debut today as the Nutcracker prince. Despite an air of caution, there were flashes of brilliance in his dancing that will only grow with experience. His jumps looked like they were in slow motion; he moved with cat like agility, and his extensions had such poetry. Hansuke Yamamoto and Katita Waldo were the Snow King and Queen – they danced more comfortably alone in their solos than when they were partnering each other with Hansuke Yamamoto soaring in his jumps, but overall, things between the Snow King and Queen felt a bit rushed. Perhaps dancing in a snow flurry has that effect, it didn’t look that comfortable to dance in although the effect is impressive. Frances Chung danced the part of the grown up Clara in the Grand pas de deux with Jamie; they had great chemistry, even sharing a smile or two. I saw Frances Chung dance the same part last year, and she has a quiet maturity about her dancing that felt a little more sure this year. Yet she still retains the fresh faced innocence of a girl dancing the dance of her life. Even the poorly concealed relieved sigh at the end of her fouettes added to her charm.
Some other standouts included James Sofranko in “Russian” – their entrance by bursting through the walls of Faberge eggs is pure fun. Adeline Kaiser’s flexible back added to her sensual mysterious air in “Arabian”. The Sugar Plum Fairy was danced with textbook precision by Elana Altman; in SFB’s production, the Sugar Plum Fairy is more or less an extended version of the Dewdrop Fairy, she dances the solo in the Waltz of the Flowers and orchestrates the events in the beginning of Act 2. In general the corps were gorgeous, but were plagued by a touch of harriedness, including a lone Flower that caught my eye by being one beat behind everyone else.
Costume design by Martin Pakledinaz was perfection, lending a finished elegant look. From the smallest girl dressed as a sparkling lady bug in the opening of Act 2 (there are no angels in this version, which leads an earthier, woodsier atmosphere – after all, this is San Francisco, and the environmental theme fits) to the Spanish white dresses with the flirty flash of red petticoats, to the dainty French Mirliton tutus that referenced the can-can, the costumes were simply beautiful and elegant.
Sometimes I wonder if a ballet can only be as good its music. And of course, the music is unforgettable; I can’t hear the music without seeing the ballet in my head (it’s the same way with Tschaikowsky’s Serenade too) . The ballet was well supported by the SF Ballet Orchestra, led by Martin West.
Another thing I forgot to mention – there is nothing like being in a Nutcracker audience. We were surrounded by kids, and it was fun watching it through their eyes. The girl behind me gasped when the tree lit up, which made me smile. There was an unhappy girl though, who was lying face down in the aisle, that had me concerned and only got taken away when she started kicking, while lying down, on another person’s seat. Ah, the joys of being in the Nutcracker audience. It’s never a boring experience.
In all, it was a magical production that I got lost in for a few hours. The Nutcracker has to be the one ballet where choreography doesn’t seem to be all too important. What’s more important is the fun, the joy, the innocence, and the magic. This version definitely fills the bill. Now that I’ve seen the Nutcracker, my holidays have officially begun!!
SF Ballet’s Nutcracker website
My 2008 review