“As soon as Marie was alone, she quickly went over to do what was quite properly on her mind and what she could not tell her mother, though she did not know why. Marie still had the wounded Nutcracker wrapped in her handkerchief, and she carried him in her arms. Now she placed him cautiously on the table, unwrapped him softly, softly, and tended to the injuries. Nutcracker was very pale, but he beamed so ruefully and amiably that his smile shot right through her heart.”
– ETA Hoffman, The Nutcracker and The Mouse King
You never really get used to that stage, do you?
The first time I was in the War Memorial Opera House was some 30 years ago with my elementary school class as we watched Falstaff. Since about 2012, I’ve regularly graced that very stage as a supernumerary for the SF Opera. I’ve watched rehearsals, taken bows, and even casually ignored the action on stage as I got a snack in the company commissary. Yet, in all my years of acting, writing, directing, and technical work, the sheer size and scale of that stage still has the power to intimidate and inspire.
But it’s been forever since I’ve been the audience simply to watch a production. And I’ve never seen their production of The Nutcracker. I’ve always wanted to as much as any born-San Franciscan, but finances (particularly during this time of year) often prevented me from doing so. Learning that the SF Ballet’s production in 1944 was the first full US production just exacerbated my guilt. I’ve spent all these years enjoying this stage, except for the one show it does every year.
So, imagine my delight when I was not only able to finally do so, but on quite a night to do so. This was the opening night marking the 75th anniversary of the ’44 production. There were Christmas decorations galore, souvenirs aplenty, and all 25 living former Claras since 1972, who were given a standing ovation when they were introduced before the show. There were also several current SF Ballet School students in the audience, adorned in tutus and pointe shoes. And as maestro Martin West took his stand and the orchestra struck up a chord, we found ourselves in a San Francisco just over-a-century ago.
The Nutcracker has always been a celebration of imagination, at least in its ballet form. Clara and Drosselmeyer are archetypal in the way Dorothy and The Wizard are. It’s irrelevant as to whether Clara’s adventure is actually a dream or proof of her uncle’s supernatural powers. (Given the ballet’s multiple endings, it’s also simply a matter of opinion.) The story is about losing oneself in their fantasy. The danger is downplayed – and dispatched with rather quickly – in favor of letting a child take a simple device and treat it as if it’s a gateway to a land of exoticism and enchantment. It’s no mistake the SF Ballet set it in their own backyard: not only do our rolling hills, mystical fog, and melting pot of ethnicities make for great fantasy fodder, but SF was less than a decade removed from the 1906 quake and fire. They needed an escape, and this one provided a far away journey just as it kept close to home.
So too does Clara (Abby Cannon) escape. Of course, living well off with her family, she escaping less from hardship and more from an obnoxious brother who breaks the Nutcracker. (Even 75 years ago, the most prominent SF stories were about the rich – unless they were noir stories.) But that doesn’t make her any less worthy of dreaming about battles with walking mice, a woman with a literal circus dress (complete with dancing bear), and Clara herself becoming a ballerina. We know she’ll wake up in the comfort and security of her luxurious home on Nob Hill, but who can say that haven’t had similar dreams?
And the SF Ballet went all out in terms of realizing those dreams. I’m glad I have photos to work with because Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes aren’t done just from mere description. The aforementioned dress of Madame du Cirque is just one of my favorites, probably because it reminds of the icon from that other legendary SF show (which, sadly, closes this New Year’s Eve). The 1915 costumes look as accurate as any photo I’ve seen from that era. The ethnic costumes after the Sugar Plum dance are eclectic without being fetishized, as they likely would have been in original productions. Even today, despite all the strides for diversity in opera, stereotypes still thrive. To the SF Ballet’s credit, they show much more sensitivity than the Bolshoi would have.
The set design by Michael Yeargen revels in its own grandeur, From the backdrops of Old SF to the growing Christmas tree showing a shrinking Clara before our eyes, the sets lean heavily toward the surreal. James Ingalls’ lights add to this quality, making that gigantic set somehow seem even larger. And when it is filled, one can only wonder how they were yet able to put in more. Act I end with the dance of King and Queen Snowflake, and Yeargen’s set lives up to that name. An entire mountain’s worth of snow is poured onto the stage, occasionally obscuring the royal couple (Yuan Yuan Tan and Carlo di Lanno). The magnificent dancers never miss a step, even as we, the audience, wonder how they can even see one another.
It should come as no surprise that the corps of dancers are excellent. Under the choreography of Helgi Tomasson, the child soldiers alongside the Nutcracker (Luke Ingham) all the way to the Waltzing Flowers of the climax are all graceful and elegant. Yet, special recognition has to go to Mathilde Froustey as Ballerina Clara. Not just for what she does, but what she doesn’t do. On opening night, Froustey’s balance – which took years to master – nearly wavered at two different points. It was a heart-stopping thing for me to see both times, both as an audience member and as a performer – and you’d have to be both to be certain that’s what happened. It’s a tribute to Froustey’s impeccable skill and impressive talent that she made both potential waverings look fluid. I dare say the audience, whether they noticed or not, left with a greater respect for her talent than when they arrived.
After the performance had finished and a cascade of red & white balloons descended on the audience, I walked through the streets of San Francisco with my press kit and complimentary gift wrap paper (yes, really) as it began to rain. City Hall was lit up with red and green, the Civic Center ice rink was currently empty, but there were a group of Middle Easterners protesting in front of City Hall. It was one of those contradictory sights that reminds me of why I love my hometown so much. It is simultaneously a place that celebrates escapism as it gives a voice to the downtrodden. It’s a place with the second-highest level of inequality in the country (NY is first) and where bohemians can easily mix with the bourgeoisie. It’s a city as blessed/cursed with innovation as it is trapped/comforted by tradition. It’s my home.
Finally attending SF Ballet’s Nutcracker was like exploring that one room of your home you’ve never set foot in. It may have taken me a while to get in there, but I’m glad I finally did.
The Nutcracker’s 75th Anniversary is scheduled to run until the 29th of December at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly two hours with a single 20-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.