BWW Reviews: SF Ballet Ends the Christmas Season with Colorful NUTCRACKER

San Francisco Ballet holds a special place in "Nutcracker" history. It brought the once unknown and little performed Tchaikovsky ballet to the United States in 1944 - the beginning of what has become an American and world-wide holiday tradition. It's a magical tradition that has children dancing in their living rooms to Tchaikovsky's perfect score and imaging a growing tree in their own living rooms (my younger self chief among them in spirit, although likely the least talented). What little girl doesn't dream of a prince sweeping her off her feet? I know I still do, and I'm 23 years old! 

San Francisco Ballet's traditional, yet personalized version of "The Nutcracker" caters to the the colorful world of a child's dreams. Set in San Francisco during the 1915 World's Fair, the ballet's main character, Clara, lives in a beautiful Edwardian home. As she journeys to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara enters an Arboretum-like setting, probably meant to evoke the feeling of a World Fair set in a glass building. The ballet's cultural dances - Russian, Chinese, Arabian, French and Spanish - and a character with a giant circus dress to fit all her lovely "bufoon" children under, enhance the World Fair setting, as well.

The current San Francisco production, which premiered in 2004, features choreography by Helgi Tomasson, scenic design by Michael Yeargan and costume design by Martin Pakledinaz. The simple scenic design of the Sugar Plum Fairy's castle makes a refreshing change from some overdone, palace-like sets found in other productions, and the homes at the beginning of the ballet are beautifully inspired by homes like the "painted ladies" of San Francisco. During the second act, various pieces are also added to complete the different cultural settings of the dances.

When Uncle Drosselmeyer emerges from smoke and makes Clara "shrink" to the size of a toy, the living room sets are swapped for a magical giant version of the room. Unfortunately, the larger sets also take up much of the stage, making for a very crowed fight between the soldiers and the mice. The fight scene lacks artistic flourish. Dramatic music sometimes lacks a partner in dance. Ballet dancers must learn to overact, for much of the first act consists of grand hand gestures rather than dancing - common for productions of "The Nutcracker," but also one of my major complaints about certain ballets (even though it may be required to tell the story). 

The second act, however, is full of dancing, and San Francisco's principal dances do their jobs well, making it look easy as they fly across the stage. But the second act is also much like a politician's speech: the audience feels compelled to clap after every little trick on stage, which interrupts the magic of it all and feels pointless since every dancer gets to bow in the end. Madame du Cirque's children cram under her dress at the end of their dance only to come back out, bow, and walk off stage. So, what's the point of the giant, albeit wonderful, circus tent dress?

But the traditional choreography does includes a few surprises along the way. Bright costumes and small changes to the story make it more original. Instead of using her slipper, Clara uses a mouse trap to distract the King of the Mice while the Nutcracker defeats him. The Arabian dance features a genie in a lamp, the French dancers look like scoops of birthday cake ice cream while they twirl their ribbons and the Russian dancers jump through paper to do some very impressive choreography.

Uncle Drosselmeyer also stays on stage for a great portion of the second part of the ballet, acting as a puppeteer for Clara's dreams. But the Nutcracker prince leaves the stage for more than half the second act, leaving Clara on stage to watch the cultural acts with her uncle. The Nutcracker's absence takes away sone of the romance of the production. He does return for a wonderful Grand Pas de Deux with a transformed Clara at the end of the second act, however, making up for part of the loss. 

The Nutcracker's costume uses a pastel palette of colors, including a blue soldier's outfit and an orange beard. The costume stands out from other nutcrackers enough to lend itself to San Francisco Ballet's unique brand and expensive, but beautiful gifts. You won't find a Nutcracker as bright and unique as this one. The rest of the costumes are colorful, especially the King of Mice's royal purple attire, but none so unique and bright as that of the Nutcracker.

With one week left of performances and Christmas day around the corner, there couldn't be a more perfect time to see San Francisco's lovely production of "The Nutcracker." The production started earlier this month, and many have already enjoyed the magic it has to offer, but the magic intensifies the closer it gets to Christmas. With four performances after Christmas day (through December 27), "The Nutcracker" also offers the opportunity to extend the holiday cheer by a day or two. You can dance to the music in your living room or imagine the dance in your mind, but there's nothing like seeing it live.


The Nutcracker

Through Dec 27

San Francisco Ballet


The SF Ballet 2012 Season:

Onegin - Jan 27-Feb 3

Chroma - Feb 14-25

Le Carnaval des Animauz Francesca da Rimini Trio - Feb 16-26

Romeo and Juliet - Mar 6-11

The Fifth Season Glass Pieces - Mar 21-Apr 1

Raymonda Act II RAkU - Mar 23-Apr 3

Divertimento No. 15 The Four Temperaments - Apr 12-18

Don Quixote - Apr27-May 6

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From This Author Harmony Wheeler

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