Last Thursday, I properly kicked off the Christmas season at the War Memorial Opera House with San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker. It’s been a family tradition ever since I was a little girl, and this is a production is one worthy of a tradition that’s passed down from generation to generation. Choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, thisÂ production showcases the best of childhood dreams – the warmth of a doting uncle, the thrill of adventure, the dreams of love, the wonder of a child, and the charm of the wonders of the world.Â No matter how many times I’ve seen Tomasson’s glittering production, I’m impressed by how much this production still amazes. The growing tree is just as impressive year after year, and the details in this production are just as charming, especially in the delightful costumes by Martin Pakledinaz that look like fancy confections. Everything about this ballet is like a glittering Christmas present that you’ve always wanted, tied with a Tiffany bow.
Set in early twentieth-century San Francisco, the local touches of San Francisco houses and the arboretum in Golden Gate Park in the grandiose sets by Michael Yeargan are magnificent. The first act is a rich fairytale as sumptuous as a holiday feast, inviting in its plotline, dramatic elements and dancing children. The second act is filled with a variety of sparkling vignettes with moments for the dancing to shine. The dances feature a variety of cultural delights, from the Chinese dragon in the Chinese Tea (danced with high-flying liveliness by James Sofranko) to the gasp-inducing entrance of the Russian Trepak bursting forth from Faberge eggs led by Hansuke Yamamoto with genial bravado. Lily Roger was a particular highlight in the Arabian, unfolding her long limbs with hypnotic sensuality. Moments of humor made unexpected but welcome appearances – the campy death of the Mouse King is particularly satisfying, and the quirky yet surprisingly agile circus bear that dances with Madame Du Cirque’s children never fails to make me laugh.
Sofiane Sylve and guest artist Casey Herd was the reigning king and queen at last Thursday night’s performance, dancing the leads in the final Grand pas de deux. They lit up the stage with a regal presence, both embodying stunning glamor. Professionalism artfully concealed balance checks in the difficult adagio of the pas de deux, making it hardly noticeable to most of the audience. Other signs of under-rehearsal showed occasionally, especially in the coordination of the orchestra (under the baton of Donato Cabrera) with the Grand pas de deux and the Waltz of the Flowers with Maria Kochetkova as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Indecisive of its ever-changing tempo, the orchestra was a precarious element in an otherwise airy and expansive performance by Kochetkova, her arms generous and light. It was the lethal combination of a slow, stilting tempo and a choreography that didn’t offer much for the soloists to do, which led to moments of awkward stillness rather than flowing momentum and the freedom to fly. I couldn’t help but to wish that there was more for these gorgeous dancers to do. Sylve’s musicality had no place to shine without the support of the orchestra and static choreography. Despite this, the dancers still left a crystal clear impression of majesty and class. Herd was the hunky prince of everyone’s dreams, who matched Sylve’s glamour with his tall lines and dramatic stage presence. His dancing was almost operatic, his arms moving in dramatic strokes and his leaps were breathtaking. Vanessa Zahorian and Taras Domitro danced with cool ease and splendor amidst the snowstorm as the Snow Queen and King, and Elise Gillum completed the cast as a plucky and spirited young Clara.
San Francisco Ballet’s production is one that encapsulates the sweet warmth of tightly-held childhood dreams, as well as the spectacle and wonder of a world that is much bigger than our hopes and fantasies. And what a spectacle it is.