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BWW Review: NUTCRACKER at San Francisco Ballet Returns with an Extra Dollop of Enchantment & Delight

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The all-time holiday classic performs live at the San Francisco Opera House through December 30th

BWW Review: NUTCRACKER at San Francisco Ballet Returns with an Extra Dollop of Enchantment & Delight
Dancers frolic in the snow in San Francisco Ballet's production
of Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker

If there is a more jaw-droppingly glorious scene on any Bay Area stage right now than the Act I finale of San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker, I find that hard to believe. Just as Uncle Drosselmeyer has come to the aid of young Clara by magically transforming her broken Nutcracker into a dashing prince, a pinprick of light pierces through the ominous, black void enshrouding them. It then expands with astonishing speed to open up the entire stage picture into a fantasia of gently falling snow. This transition lasts all of three seconds and transports us to the magical winter wonderland of our wildest dreams. And this, folks, is why we so desperately need live performance. To watch this same scene on video simply cannot duplicate the sheer wonder of experiencing it in person. It will thrill you, enchant you, and maybe even bring a few tears to your eyes.

Then again, this entire Nutcracker feels like a love letter to live performance. Maybe it's because we've been denied this opportunity for so long that everything about it feels a little extra-special this year, no matter how many times we've seen it before. From the downbeat of the overture, conducted by Martin West with an extra dash of spritely precision, to the final image of Clara awaking from her dream and rushing upstairs into her mother's loving arms, the whole affair crackles with an energy it hasn't always had in seasons past. The dancers are thrilled to be back where they belong, dancing for a live audience, and we in turn are thankful for the joy they bring us, which has been sorely missing from our lives for almost two years. That positive energy then reverberates between audience and performers for the duration of ballet. It's a perfect invocation of holiday spirit if ever there was one.

SFB's version of Nutcracker was choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson as a love letter to San Francisco, his adopted home. Set among its iconic Victorian homes circa 1915, it adheres to the classic story of a Christmas Eve party where young Clara receives the gift of a magical nutcracker that entices her into a fanciful and frightening dreamworld of toy soldiers, battles with over-sized mice, and an enchanted prince. After Clara is transformed by the Sugar Plum Fairy into a ballerina so that she can dance a stunning pas de deux with the prince, she awakens early on Christmas morning with the toy nutcracker back by her side. The sets by Michael Yeargan and costumes by the late great Martin Pakledinaz, Tony winners both, harken back to an era when San Francisco was just coming into its own as the city we know today.

BWW Review: NUTCRACKER at San Francisco Ballet Returns with an Extra Dollop of Enchantment & Delight
The toys magically come to life beneath an outsized Christmas tree
in San Francisco Ballet's production of Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker

Casting will necessarily change throughout the run, but at the December 14th performance that I caught, the level of dancing was uniformly high from start to finish. Every dancer onstage seemed to be having a blast and investing their performance with an extra dollop of panache and detail. Just one example of that is Katita Waldo as Clara's grandmother, a role so often treated as no more than a walk-on. With Waldo's natural stage presence and economy of gesture, this small role finally becomes three-dimensional so that we can really feel the same joy she does in watching her beloved granddaughter experience the wonders of the season.

That glorious snow scene featured the gallant team of Steven Morse and Wona Park as King and Queen of the Snow. Morse dances with a crisp, appealing understatement, and provides his Queen with the support that allows her to dazzle. While Park dances with less etherealness than I've often seen in this role, her crystalline technique reminded me that snowflakes seen in closeup contain surprisingly sharp, clean edges.

Standouts in the Act II specialty dances included an outrageously airborne Lucas Erni leading the Chinese dragon, and Nathaniel Remez with his astonishing mid-air splits heading off the Russian trio. The evening came to a smashing climax with the Grand Pas de Deux rivetingly danced by Sasha De Sola and Luke Ingham. He is quite dashing and provides her with the solid, invisible support that is the hallmark of great ballet partnerships. When she runs across the stage to alight on his shoulder, it happens so smoothly and gracefully that you never notice the effort and technique behind it. The highpoint of the entire evening was De Sola's solo variation. While I have long admired her beguilingly elegant line and impeccable balances, this shows a whole new level of artistry from her. She skims across the surface of the music, delightfully playing with tempo, following up an almost dangerously languorous pirouette with a series of spitfire turns that leave the audience breathless. It's the kind of dancing that makes you sit up and pay extra attention, just to see what she's going to do next. Absolutely thrilling!

(Photos by Erik Tomasson)

Live performances of San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker continue through Thursday, December 30th at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA. Running time is approximately two hours, including one intermission. Proof of full COVID vaccination and wearing of masks while in the building are required. For tickets and additional information, visit www.sfballet.org or call (415) 865-2000, M-F 10am-4pm.


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