The last time I went to a holiday service of either the Jewish or Lutheran persuasion was when Marky Mark and Funky Bunch could be found playing on my Discman. My closet includes zero wreath-adorned, candy cane-laden wool sweaters, and my crafting supplies do not extend to red or green glitter pens. So call me sentimental when I say it’s Nutcracker season, and I’m ecstatic!
Growing up, I never danced in any version of the The Nutcracker, but I easily recall seeing it in grand form. Miami City Ballet rendered a cool and pristine fantasyland in Balanchine’s neo-classical version with crisp dancing and a very tidy party scene. Sure, at that age, I didn’t understand why anyone would want to crack a nut in the first place, but I loved the idea of young children fighting rats, dancing through a blizzard (anything with hail, sleet, or snow caught my fancy–I lived in South Florida!), dreams coming to life, and dancing sweets.
And even today, seeing a high quality Nutcracker makes me feel warm and fuzzy all over, and not just because I’m wearing a Polartec. Maybe it’s the overall mood and ambiance that accompanies a well-told story ballet, especially one that’s placed more in modern day times than in one far, far away in a kingdom where a prince rescues a princess from the vile evil whatchamacallit.
For instance, take this weekend, when I was one of thousands at San Francisco Ballet’s Sunday matinee. Children, dressed in their weekend best of velvets, sateen, and even some cargo pants, scampered about before the show started, giggling in high pitched little squeals of joy before retiring to seats outfitted with plushy booster seats (booster seats are only available in the Orchestra, I believe). But as soon as the lights dimmed, everyone, no matter their height or age, seemed captivated.
What: San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker
When: Through Dec. 27
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco
Other: Want to treat a potential mate to a date? How about Nutcracker Date Night?
SF Ballet’s Nutcracker opens up around 1915, when the World Fair came to town. On stage, passersby and party guests travel a San Francisco street lined with Victorian homes, and some head up the stairs to a Christmas party. Later, the second act takes place under white delicately engraved, ornate archways reminiscent of the Conservatory of Flowers. This particular Nut has a definite local flair, and what local wouldn’t like to imagine a time when we could fit 56 children and adults romping about in our living room or leap through the Conservatory, flanked by effervescently smiling butterflies and ladybugs?
But at this Nutcracker‘s core is dancing and merriment stirred with a heavy dose of the theatrical. One of my favorite ooh-and-ah moments is when the audience very audibly gasps as it tries to figure out the theater magic involved in how a few presents stacked one on top of another can possibly open to reveal a life-sized dancing doll. Later, the living room, including the tree and doll cabinet, grows to enormous heights, and Clara, our young protagonist, defeats the Mouse King with a spring-loaded mouse trap, saving the Nutcracker from toy-sword death.
This Sunday, Elise Gillum danced Clara with a fresh blend (yes, she’s like good Hawaiian coffee) of youthful naivete, a can-do attitude, and lovely carriage, and she looked in fine form next to the company’s dancers. In fact, everyone looked grand, and all of the dancing is enjoyable, even when bits of the choreography become a bit germane. Yes, Waltz of the Flowers, I’m talking to you. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, who revamped this Nut about six years ago, has had ample time to process the general criticism and up the ante. But this waltz still looks static, with no care taken to rhythm, flow, timing, and overall visual appeal. And when Sarah Van Patten, your most musically gifted dancer, can’t make the Sugar Plum Fairy’s steps look connected to the score, you’ve got a problem. Also, dear French dance (not the dancers): you were a close runner-up.
But the other sections are quite nice, and highlight a rotating array of dancers like Daniel Deivison and SF Ballet School students as a high jumping Chinese dancer and his bright red Dragon and Courtney Elizabeth‘s sultry attitude and lavish grand battements (high leg kicks) in the Spanish dance.
Dancer-wise, the biggest surprise proved to be Vito Mazzeo, a newly arrived male soloist, who danced the role of the Nutcracker. He played to Gillum’s Clara with a mixture of boyish charm, eager beaver, and genuine gratitude. Later when partnering Yuan Yuan Tan in the grand pas de deux (note to readers: in this version, Clara enters a mirrored wardrobe and, once spun around, out exits as her adult self–at SF Ballet, you not only reach the age of majority via wardrobe, you can also change your hair color and race), Mazzeo danced with very clean, stretched lines, and incredibly well centered spins and jumps. He partnered Tan with surefire confidence, and I hope Matteo’s staying power continues through the regular season. He seems like quite a catch, and I’m excited to see more of him, especially in the contemporary works.
Still, the snow scene takes my breath away. There’s something about Tchaikovsky’s music, where the chorus warbles its “ah, ah, ahahah”, the orchestra builds, the snow rushes down from the ceiling, and the corps de ballet flies through the air, that seems synonymous with the rush of the winter season. Secretly, watching the snow scene, this tough girl who loves action movies (yes, I’m referring to me) gets a little teary eyed. Just like grandma’s homemade soup, dancing snowflakes are good for the soul.