News flash for you lingering holiday dance Grinches: The fusty, old San Francisco Ballet "Nutcracker" you remember from Christmases past is long gone. In its place since 2004 is a sparkling still-new miracle: one of the most beautiful "Nutcrackers" on the planet.
If you're just discovering this, you will not be alone. On the eve of the company's 75th anniversary, San Francisco Ballet's "Nutcracker" is going global. A "digicast" of Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's sumptuous staging will soon be screened in more than 70 theaters throughout North America and Europe, and this year's performances are being filmed for broadcast next winter on PBS.
At Thursday night's opening, cameras weren't yet rolling, but everything looked ready for its close-up. Flower maidens waltzed with extra lilt, the snow scene's confetti flakes came down in a blizzard, and Tchaikovsky's eternal score sounded supremely sprightly under Music Director Martin West's baton. There were surprises to fuel little-girl ballerina dreams and grown-up balletomane ravings alike, and sometimes - especially in the sensational debut of the new Russian-trained principal Maria Kochetkova - both at once.
Kochetkova, a 23-year-old recruit from the English National Ballet, is tiny and light, a sparrow. In the closing Grand Pas de Deux, she seemed hardly to touch the floor, and when she leapt toward her Nutcracker cavalier, Davit Karapetyan, for a diabolically difficult shoulder-sit, she landed as though she'd simply flitted to a fresh branch.
Her variation (you know the famous music from the game Tetris and a million TV ads, come on, sing along) was a marvel of birdlike crispness. And don't forget her fouette turns in the coda: copious doubles so natural you nearly giggled. Now throw on top of all of this Karapetyan's own virtuosity: sissones so high and split in the air they were like scissors snapping open and shut. The response from parents and children both was rapturous.
It was the evening's high point, which is only right - what Tomasson's version calls the "Grand Pas de Deux" is the "Nutcracker's" crowning dance, the climax. But the emotional peak is even more appropriate in this gorgeous staging because of how well Tomasson shapes his story. And that - more than Michael Yeargan's richly appointed sets, more than Martin Pakledinaz's Smithsonian-worthy Edwardian-era costumes - is the deeper reason this "Nutcracker" should be shown the whole world over.
In most "Nutcrackers" (including George Balanchine's, which made "Nutcracker" a cultural phenomenon in this country and is still choreographically the gold standard), the final pas is danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy. In Tomasson's version, thanks to a simple but ingenious coup de theatre I will leave you to discover for yourself, this pas is danced by our heroine Clara, transformed from a freshly adolescent girl (played with winning wonder Thursday by Lacey Escabar into a gracious woman.
It's a smart stroke that gives the ballet psychological richness while avoiding weird Freudian overtones, and other smart strokes abound. Tomasson places his story in San Francisco circa the 1915 World's Fair, and the city echoes long after the opening scrim of Victorian house-fronts lifts. From a second-act garden fantasyland whose arches evoke the Conservatory of Flowers to a Mother Ginger clearly inspired by "Beach Blanket Babylon," Tomasson mines the spirit of his setting.
With all of this - and especially that magical first-act change of scale when the doll-cabinet becomes a looming toy soldier fortress, the fireplace a towering inferno - you might not notice that the big ensemble choreography tends to be a tad sterile. The Waltz of the Flowers is the low point: Tomasson arranges the women like blooming petals, and though the image may read to the opera house's upper balconies, it's energetically static. But Rachel Viselli's Sugar Plum Fairy breezed past this, crafting a full-fledged musical interpretation, catching arabesque balances that lasted for eons and riding the rhythm with every sweep of her arms.
Sarah Van Patten played the Snow Queen, creating exquisite curvatures through her neck and head, looking radiant alongside Pierre-François Vilanoba. And in the far finer choreography for the national dances and Act 1's dancing dolls, star turns abounded: Rory Hohenstein like pulled taffy as the clown doll; Pauli Magierek playing kootchie-coo as Arabian; Garrett Anderson, Daniel Deivison and Matthew Stewart with explosive energy in Russian. Meanwhile, Damian Smith, still relatively new to Drosselmeyer, looked as if he'd been playing the affable uncle half his life.
It's hard to go wrong with the casting at the Ballet these days, and the long "Nutcracker" run can also be a time to catch exciting debuts. The cast for the "Nutcracker" filming (taking place over three performances) is quite different from Thursday's - but Kochetkova will dance the grand pas. Tomasson's production was stunning when it premiered three years ago, and it's even more lovely now with her in it.
Nutcracker: San Francisco Ballet's production continues through Dec. 30 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. (at Grove). Tickets: $18-$198; (415) 865-2000 or www.sfballet.org.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
Official Website: http://www.sfballet.org/performancestickets/nutcracker.asp
Added by sepsis13 on December 19, 2007