writers on dancing


Fantastic Team Effort....
our New "Nutcracker"

"The Nutcracker" (world premiere; choreography by Helgi Tomasson)
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, California
December 17, 2004

by Paul Parish
copyright © 2004 by Paul Parish

There's SO much to like about Helgi Tomasson's new "Nutcracker," for San Francisco Ballet, a couple of howevers should get registered before the enthusiasm takes over—namely, that Snow and especially Flowers seem under-choreographed and may not hold up on second or third viewings, and the Nutcracker's mime scene, which goes on past the climax in the music, may turn out to be insufferable.

But WHAT A SHOW! It's is truly well-conceived, and some fantastic committee-work has gone into its realization. "Nutcracker" is a Gesammtkunstwerk, and the scenery and costumes, the magic effects (many of them), and how they move into and out of place are brought into play in a way that recalls Jerome Robbins' understanding of how place and circumstance can affect the flow of events.

From the beginning, when during the overture the front-cloth (which looks like the front page of a rotogravure magazine's holiday issue) begins to accept projections of old photographs, and it feels like you're looking into a stereo-opticon—the Cliff House, the Crystal Palace in Golden Gate Park, a little girl who looks like one of the Bobbsey Twins sitting in the lawn looking ready to go home —you realize that you're in really good hands; this show is going to cast a spell. It's already doing it; your heart is taken up and you're nostalgic already. Never mind that the little girl isn't actually your grandmother, that doesn't matter at all. It's the resonance that counts, and it counts enormously.

The last image to appear on this "page" is an ad for "Drosselmeyer and Co," and the lights come up behind the scrim on an ornate store-counter with the proprietor anxiously finishing up a Nutcracker doll, finding it a box, dealing with a last-minute exasperating customer, who settles on a fancy clock, and he finally gets out of the store (wrapped in a wizardly cloak) as the overture comes to an end.

Our old "Nutcracker" (Willam Christensen's first act, Lew Christensen's "Snow" and second act) has always begun outdoors, in the neighborhood. Willam Christensen was a Kapra-esque story-teller, and the version we're all used to began with a snowy street-scene, with carolers, chestnut-and doll-sellers engaging passersby on their way to the Stahlbaums' house—all a little too corny but absolutely solid stage-craft, narrative you simply could not misunderstand.

Tomasson has kept this approach, and indeed he's quoted some details from Christensen's version, while it's clear that he's thought about every major version and (as he did with his "Don Quixote" and "Sleeping Beauty") used what was handy of his predecessors' versions in fashioning a new piece of his own.

Whose idea was the grand staircase? Fritz makes his entrance sliding down the banister, and indeed Clara has just preceded him, like Juliet coming to the ball. Which is not just an idle detail—Tomasson's Clara is thirteen, and she is set slightly apart from the children; she sits out the first dance, poised on the chaise lougue beside her grandmother, and gets up to dance with the grown-ups. Indeed, she dances with her father.

There are many echoes of Balanchine's "Nutcracker" in our new one. In Balanchine's version, Fritz dances with his mother. Here, Clara dances with her father—both are poignant details of each. Indeed the highlight of our new first act for me was the tone of this dance: Jim Sohm, who is now the administrator of the school as well as a principal character dancer, who was a great Romeo with the company twenty years ago, and always a wonderful partner, has never danced more eloquently than he did last Friday night as father to the lovely Caroline Hearst's Clara.

Anita Paciotti had some wonderful moments as her mother, especially at the VERY end of the evening, when Clara wakes back up from her dream and meets her mother, who's coming down looking for her, running up that grand staircase for the strongest final curtain I've ever seen on any version of the "Nutcracker." But it's Ashley Wheater, who's now a ballet master after a career with the Royal Ballet and the Joffrey and ten years here, who really brings the senior dancers' strength to the show, as Drosselmeyer—a Drosselmeyer conceived in the vein of Mark Morris's version, the bachelor-uncle with the wild shock of white hair who's deep-down cool and has never lost touch with the sense of mystery and wonder which for children is the real window onto the world.

This is not derivative on Tomasson's part—it is a major reconception of the role on Morris's part, and in adopting it Tomasson is only doing the reasonable thing. This is Drosselmeyer is for us, and especially for San Francisco, where gay uncles abound and can enjoy seeing someone so like them depicted on stage showing his right function in the family economy. The archetype is Hermes-psychopompus—the forever-young god of hermetic secrets, magic, the guide to the world of the psyche. And Wheater manages to be all this and also a convincing uncle within the decorum of the mise-en-scene.

The scenery is extremely elaborate, fabulously expensive. Some may think this is unjustifiable, but I think there are deep reasons why expense is necessary on this scale. First of them being how important the furniture you grow up with is to a child. This is what was here when your consciousness started to take form, it was there before you were, and it's what provides the structure in which your adventures first begin to leave the place of safety. The furniture is the solid safe place to which you can return when you come home; it IS the physical unchanging stuff of home, the sofa the staircase, the book-case, the china-closet.

Our new "Nutcracker" has got the best furniture in the world. Not only does it have the first tree with electric lights, it's got a china-closet that in the transmogrified world after midnight comes back giant-sized and has "capabilities": it lets down a draw-bridge and disgorges tin soldiers into the fray, an effect which set the house on a roar. This furniture wheels into place at speed and at the last possible second—the effect reminded me of Robbins choreography for the walls of Wendy's room in Peter Pan in the scene where the children learned to fly. (Once they were aloft the walls flew apart and the night sky appeared in a panorama which scrolled down from evening to night to miles overhead…. Tomasson and co have applied this lesson to the transformation to wonderful effect.)

First impressions may perhaps be allowed to swirl some. The second act seems less rich, though here there were many things which changed the structure of the fable and had to be processed not just as novelties but as ideas, especially the moment when Clara received a crown, stepped into a magic wardrobe, which was revolved and out stepped a ballerina in her place. Miss Hearst and Tina LeBlanc actually look a great deal alike, in height and in face—leBlanc is perhaps the shortest ballerina in the world—but her dancing is nonpareil. She is our greatest artist, and Tomasson deserves full credit for giving the status she deserves to an artist the London press (when raving about the company) almost never singles out for praise because (one must assume) she doesn't look like a whippet. Such accuracy as hers—like Kyra Nichols, "she makes no mistakes"—is only the basis for her art, which is musical in the extreme and increasingly as she matures inflected with emotional colorings in wonderful hues. Actually, since she has had her children she seems to be growing younger, and all sorts of tendernesses have entered her dancing which did not use to be there.

In any case, the dancing of Gonzalo Garcia and Tina leBlanc in the grand pas was at the highest level of delicacy and excitement. Tomasson's choreographic gifts have never looked stronger. Her variation was out of this world; it stands up to anything I've ever seen. And it put the show over the top, brought down the house, and earned everybody a standing ovation.

The creative team for Nutcracker included Martin Pakledinaz (costumes -- who NB did the costumes for Morris's THe Hard Nut, and who actually approached Tomasson when he first heard about the project years ago), Martin Yeargan (scenic design), Martin Ingalls (lighting -- who also worked on The Hard Nut), Wendall K. Harrington (Projection Design), Andrew Mogrelia (musical director/conductor), and of course, Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director as well as choreographer.

front page:   Ashley Wheater as Drosselmeyer and Lauren Foos as Clara in Tomasson's all-new Nutcracker
Credit: © David Martinez

Volume 2, No. 48
December 20, 2004

revised December 22, 2003
Copyright ©2004 by Paul Parish


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last updated on December 20, 2004