San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
17 December 2015
The first time I saw San Francisco Ballet’s current production of The Nutcracker, a little boy sitting in front of us turned to his mother and whispered, “It’s magic!” Eleven years later, to the very day, it’s still a magical experience. This season’s second evening performance, on 17 December at War Memorial Opera House, was also a sparkling introduction for new company dancers Lauren Srongin, as the Snow Queen, and Jahna Frantziskonis, as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
SFB produced America’s first Nutcracker in 1944. Artistic director Helgi Tomasson nearly perfected it with the current production, the company’s fifth overall. The setting is San Francisco in 1915, just after the city hosted a World’s Fair themed “The Jewel City.” And bejeweled this Nutcracker is.
The ladies at the Stahlbaums’ Christmas Eve party wear Paul Poiret‒esque gowns in layers of pastel fabrics, ornamented with gemstones that glisten tastefully during the couples’ reels and minuets. Dr. Stahlbaum (Gaetano Amico), proudly demonstrates newfangled electrical wiring by plugging in the vibrant tree lights. The Ballerina Doll’s (Emma Rubinowitz) frothy pink tutu and raven ringlets shimmer and shine.
Val Caniparoli’s Drosselmeyer is the chargé d’affaires, of course, billowing in with a sweep of his many-colored coat. His sleight-of-hand tricks delight the children onstage and in the audience, but if your grown-up eye drifts there are myriad subplots to discover: two girls trying to copy the grandparents’ dance, a little boy who loses his partner during the children’s dance, and father pinching the ear of a gleefully mischievous Fritz (SFB School student Noah Berggren). And when the envious Fritz breaks Clara’s (fellow student Sienna Clark) new toy, Drosselmeyer produces a hankie to wipe up his nutcracker tears and blow his nutcracker nose – a new touch that makes the mysterious uncle seem delightfully down-to-earth. These details, along with the lively orchestra guided by Martin West, make Act I zip along.
At the heart of the story, of course, is a pre-teen Clara, danced with youthful curiosity and mature confidence by Clark. Brave when battling those nasty mice, Clark appears at ease in her pas de deux with Davit Karapetyan as the Prince. For his part, Karapetyan expresses the Prince’s newfound freedom in exultant jumps and pirouettes.
The revelation in Act I is soloist Lauren Strongin, squired by Vitor Luiz in her main-company debut as the Snow Queen. A former soloist at Houston Ballet and principal dancer at Sarasota Ballet, Strongin boasts a lovely classicism with high attitudes, easy flexibility and powerful extensions – and a spitfire showmanship that brought a wonderful and welcome exuberance to this often sober role. One feared for the duo’s safety during the whiteout of snow, but they made it through.
With everything settled after the storm, Act II’s festivities commenced in a flurry of fringe tiaras. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Jahna Frantziskonis led her retinue of ladybugs, butterflies and dragonflies with tender care. The former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer joined the SFB corps this season, bringing along airy jumps, elegant pirouettes and a gracious command of the stage.
After a bumpy but lavishly glittered Spanish dance, Sasha De Sola enlivened Tomasson’s rather plodding Arabian choreography with smart, varied timing. Steven Morse leapt through the Chinese dance, chased by a whimsical five-person dragon, while Jillian Harvey, Rebecca Rhodes and Miranda Silveira exuded joie de vivre in the French without getting strangled by their ribbon sticks. Bursting out of Fabergé-inspired Imperial eggs, Max Cauthorn and the Russian dancers came close to hitting the ceiling.
The Act II set is striking in its plainness, decorated with frilled arches and windowpanes that suggest the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. New this year is themed imagery projected on the back wall; they generally add much-needed brightness, but Mother Ginger’s (Louis Schilling) polka-dotted polichinelles cover up for clip-arty look of the animated balloons projected behind her. In comparison to the vibrancy that precedes them, the waltzing flowers look a bit wilted in their tame pastels, but Frantziskonis led them ably.
Toward the end of Tomasson’s Nutcracker, Clara steps into a mirrored gazebo – a life-size version of a gift she received at the party. When she steps back out, she’s been transformed into a ballerina, Frances Chung on Thursday evening, for the grand pas de deux. Chung and Karapetyan deliver the classical goods, with Chung performing masterful balances, Karapetyan lyrical and exquisitely controlled, and the pair of them executing thrillingly perfect, hands-free leaps into shoulder sits.
It may be because it’s early in the run, but the dancers seemed fresh and enthusiastic – not a furrowed hundredth-Nutcracker brow to be seen. I hope that enthusiasm lasts through the run, because they filled the Opera House with beauty, magic and much-needed joy during troubled times.
San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker continues through 31 December.