writers on dancing


Snow, Fog and East-West Treats;
A Love Letter to San Francisco

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

by Ann Murphy
copyright © 2004 by Ann Murphy

Friday night at the War Memorial Opera House the capacity crowd roared approval as Helgi Tomasson unwrapped his new beautiful "Nutcracker," a gift to his adopted city as lucent, shimmering and emboldened by dream as the Bay Area itself can be.

After decades of a hodge podgey overstuffed "Nut," which had grown as worn and familiar as the ancient family dog, Tomasson and his Olympian team of designers Martin Paklindina)z (costumes), and Michael Yeargan (sets), (with the added help of James Ingalls (lighting) and Wendall K. Harrington (production)), have gone back to the bones of the ETA Hoffman story, which at its heart is a tale of transformation. Out went the "Nutcracker" that swung manic depressively from the smug rituals of the Stahlbaum house, to the iridescent highs of the snow scene, and back to the tired, almost campy treacle of Mother Ginger wearing a veritable homemade club house for a dress, a "Nutcracker" where Clara left earth altogether and soared off into the snowlight in her sleigh with her prince. Out too went the confusions and vague Freudianisms that bedeviled choreographers from Hoffman’s deeply political, opium-tinged and convoluted original.

In came visual logic, seamless story, vivid location, and a vision of girlhood transformation abetted by an older male mentor that manages to be both idyllic and honest. The result is a classically cut tale with Drosselmeyer, the watchmaker, capable of estoteric magic, like Shakespeare’s Prospero, and using his powers to help lead Clara on her journey to the edge of womanhood. And like most well-rounded stories, this new "Nutcracker," despite its conceptual grandeur and visual glory, knows how to nimbly puncture the sanctimony that gets especially thick around the holidays with well-timed and unpatronizing humor,

And yet SFB’s new "Nutcracker" isn’t a perfect ballet. While the work soars in its conception and overall execution—its translucence is heartstopping—it doesn’t quite attain heartbreaking Petipa magic. The dancing is by and large beautiful, and sometimes it is even exquisite. Nevertheless, it misses the mark of sublime musicality and blazing pattern by an inch or two. One wonders if Mr. Tomasson really had enough time in the end, and whether, in some solos, like The Sugar Plum Fairy’s, or Tina LeBlanc’s as the transformed Clara of the girl’s dream, he wasn’t relying on patterns that were ready to hand. (What WOULD the essential steps for Sugar Plum Fairy’s be?) But opening night also felt at times insecurely danced, and neither Ms. Maffre (Sugar Plum) nor Ms. LeBlanc were at their best. One also suspects that over the weeks, with greater experience by the dancers, and over the next few years, with further refining by Mr. Tomasson, who choreographed the work in a matter of months, all the elements of "Nutcracker" might just function like the finest clockwork.

At the heart of the ballet’s success is the ingenious decision to locate the story in the still optimistic year of 1915, the time of the Pan Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) and still prior to US involvement in WW I. The expo was a stunning world’s fair by all accounts, celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal, an event that changed international shipping forever and shortened the trip from Europe to San Francisco by 18,000 miles. Besides the hundreds of exotic pavilions on view from February into early December—right before this "Nutcracker" story opens, in fact--electric light had recently been discovered, and the PPIE exploited this new invention, creating a phantasmagoric show each night as the Tower of Jewels, bedecked by hundreds of thousands of pieces of cut glass hung in front of tiny mirrors, were shot through with light to create an illusion of a palace of fire. What better inspiration for Act II, Clara’s dream scene, than the expo that dominated the city’s psyche that year.

For those unfamiliar with the geography of the Bay Area, it is important to note that this is a land as Asiatic as it is European, its waters varying shades of celadon, its sky veering from blinding to subdued blues, to smokey, fog-laden greys, its vistas endless, the mountains of Marin often jet black against the massive sky, palm trees mingling with redwoods and the temperate climate variable from mile to mile. There are roses still in bloom in December, and only once the rains start does the glorious purple hardenbergia even flower. Miraculously, the "Nutcracker" collaborators captured the airy, spectral and warm natural tones of the city in Act I, and pushed them to the extreme of dreamscape in Act II. In Act II the cyclorama, with its shifting hues from scene to scene (apricots, mauves, ice blues and tea browns), evoked eternity and endless possibility, offering a clean, otherworldly space in which to present “Spanish,” “Arabian, “ and the other dances. The artists also kept a firm hold on the way dream interacted with reality, with dancers from Act I reappearing as characters in Act II, and the Act II costumes as elegant but wild as Act I’s were elegant and subdued. Meanwhile, Michael Yeargan, who has a genius for creating large minimal constructs that poetically render archetypes, managed to evoke the deeply Asian flavor of San Francisco (fragments of a glass conservatory dome umbrellaed the action) , while Mr. Tomasson’s choreography for Act II, especially in the national dances, crafted movement of similar dream essences. They indeed created a “Pavilion of Dreams.”

Being true to San Francisco, fog was a strong element the moment the curtain lifted on Drosselmeyer’s oak paneled workshop. The Marina District, home of the Pan Pacific Expo, of which the only remnant is the cherished Palace of Fine Arts, is among the foggiest, coolest and moodiest places in the city. Mr. Tomasson’s Clara lives in a hilly area above and slightly east of the Marina in one of the city’s famous gingerbread Victorians. Although fog would have played an intimate role in her life, she probably never saw snow, though Bay Area children eagerly dream of it. Through her visits to the expo down the hill, she would have had a glimpse of the larger world and begun, perhaps, to dream not just of snow but of things far beyond the narrow confines of San Francisco. This is a key to the heart of the San Francisco still—a small town with an international consciousness that continues to draw dreamers and seekers to its tolerant shores and to produce pioneers, from Isadora Duncan to today’s tech wizards.

In the end what makes this a love letter to San Francisco is that Mr. Tomasson has taken the conceit of the small town with a large vision and transformed both the story and the city into beautiful archetypes of transformation. He makes this kinesthetically real by telescoping the action in both Act I and Act II. He begins with a drop curtain that reads like a late Edwardian holiday greeting card to us, the audience, then moves on to a series of snapshots of the city circa 1915, rendered like kinescope pictures, and from one photo, which portrays a storefront that reads “Drosselmeyer Fine Clocks” into Mr. Drosselmeyer’s store. From there we go out on to the street with Drosselmeyer and into the Stahlbaum parlor, and following the party, into Clara’s dream. From the dream, the action reverses outward. We begin in Clara’s personal world but the parlor, with its tree, gifts and toy cabinet, is suddenly and gorgeously outsized. Nutcracker, now with the stature of a man, stands by the enormous fireplace ready to do combat with some hip and surly rats. Drosselmeyer rises out of the floor, and soon the King and Queen of the Snow materialize out of the back wall. At this point the personal world disappears, the snow world takes hold, and in the blink of an eye we are in a Nordic landscape of stunning silver snowflake decor and blinding snow fall. By Act II, the natural world leads us on to exotic places as the expo led Clara—Spain, Arabia, China, France, Russia--and, finally, to Mother Circus and her clowns who return us to the natural world and the waltzing flowers. Only when that trajectory is complete can Clara wake from her dream, and when her dream is over, we are also forced to return to the ordinary world. Friday, for the first time in many years, the Opera House crowd felt reluctant to leave.

On the front page: Sarah Van Patten as the Snow Queen in Tomasson's all-new Nutcracker.
Credit: ©David Martinez

Volume 2, No. 48
December 20, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy


DanceView Times

What's On This Week
Index of Reviews
Index of Writers

Back Issues
About Us

Sister Sites:
Ballet Alert! Online
Ballet Talk
Ballet Blogs


Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Christopher Correa
Clare Croft
Nancy Dalva
Rita Felciano
Marc Haegeman
George Jackson
Gia Kourlas
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Alexander Meinertz
Tehreema Mitha
Gay Morris
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish
John Percival
Susan Reiter
Jane Simpson
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Lisa Traiger
Meital Waibsnaider

Kathrine Sorley Walker
Leigh Witchel


The Autumn Issue of DanceView is OUT!

Robert Greskovic reviews two new DVDs of Fonteyn dancing "Sleeping Beauty" and "Cinderella"

Mary Cargill on last summer's Ashton Celebration

Profile of Gililian Murphy, reviews of the ABT Spring season, springtime in Paris, reports from London and San Francisco

DanceView is available by subscription ONLY. Don't miss it. It's a good read.  Black and white, 48 pages, no ads. Subscribe today!

DanceView is published quarterly (January, April, July and October) in Washington, D.C. Address all correspondence to:

P.O. Box 34435
Washington, D.C. 20043
last updated on December 20, 2004