San Francisco Dance Preview: THE NUTCRACKER (San Francisco Ballet)

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by Tony Frankel on December 8, 2013

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Whereas other major companies trot out their tried-and-true but tired old annual cash-cow renditions of The Nutcracker, San Francisco Ballet’s version is a gift that makes me anticipate the holiday season. With no shortage of overblown and underwhelming productions of this holiday chestnut, SF Ballet, the country’s oldest professional ballet company and the first to perform the full-length Nutcracker in America (1944), consistently offers the most lyrical, the most poignant and the most classically rich Nutcracker you can find.

Val Caniparoli and San Francisco Ballet School students in Tomasson's Nutcracker.

SF Ballet has continuously and gloriously updated the ballet since its inception, but Helgi Tomasson’s arrival as artistic director in 1985 ensured that this company remained at the forefront with its fourth production in 1986. In 2004, that fine version was replaced by the one which opens on December 11 at the War Memorial Opera House: The setting is San Francisco around 1915 (the era of the Pan-Pacific International Exposition) in the Stahlbaums’ snug and cozy Edwardian living room, which is enriched by Michael Yeargan’s period decor, Martin Pakledinaz’s shrewd costumes and James K. Ingalls’ brilliant lighting. With a nod to San Francisco’s Victorian “Painted Ladies” and the Conservatory of Flowers, this noble manifestation celebrates the City by the Bay as much as it does Tchaikovsky’s score, certainly one of the best in the repertoire.

The San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker.

Mr. Tomasson’s spectacular version reinvented Clara’s dream in a spacious crystal palace (as opposed to the customary Candyland) with each dance entry enhanced by changing colors and Wendall K. Harrington’s thematic slide projections. Wisely, he kept his Nutcracker in the roots of the original Petipa/Ivanov production for the Maryinsky Ballet, meaning that we witness not just a reverential remake but a forthright classical ballet which is traditional in attitude and drenched in the enchantment of San Francisco herself.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker.

I also admire that Mr. Tomasson has turned Clara from a child into the 13-year-old Catherine Hearst. This way, she is a relevant teenager, a true adolescent who still relates to the world through the imaginary lens of childhood: She dreams not of the food fare she consumed at the party, but of what she saw at the Pan-Pacific exhibition, an event which is something an adult can appreciate. This is another reason why SF Ballet’s version appeals to children, teenagers and adults alike.

Frances Chung and Jaine Garcia Castilla in Tomasson's Nutcracker.

Perhaps more so than any other dance work, The Nutcracker inspires those who are still young enough to begin training for dance. Here’s another way to motivate your children to appreciate the world of dance: SF Ballet has launched a Nutcracker interactive storybook application. Designed for children ages 6-10, it is still something families can enjoy. The animated iPad app allows users to not only experience this production through original illustrations and storytelling, but to explore and engage with the world of classical dance and music through groundbreaking new interactive technology.

Discover the story of Clara’s magical journey with SF Ballet’s 'Nutcracker Interactive Storybook'

With tradition honoring the past and technology looking to the future, everything about SF Ballet’s Nutcracker celebrates both the old and the new. Plus, this production is sumptuous and gorgeous with the best dancing in town. But definitely bring the kids: This is one time they can unwrap their Christmas gifts early. And you will be doing ballet a favor by instilling the love of dance in their hearts.

photos © Erik Tomasson
Interactive Storybook artwork by Kate Garchinsky

The Nutcracker
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
December 11, 2013 – December 29, 2014
for tickets, call 415.865.2000 or visit

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