San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
10 December 2021
Oh, what festive Friday it was, as San Francisco Ballet (SFB) welcomed fans back to the War Memorial Opera House for the opening night of 2021’s Nutcracker! It’s been a moment since we’ve been able to be in this place to witness this world-class dance institution, and folks were tickled pink. Holiday finery, conversations with old friends, champagne – the scene was charged with all of the above. Some chilly winter temps (well winter in the Bay Area, that is) even surfaced outside to round out the joyous experience. And as the orchestra, conducted by Martin West, hit the first notes of the overture, you could sense the smiles emanating from behind everyone’s masks.
Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker, which premiered in 2004, is a fairly conventional version of the ballet, with just a few exceptions. There’s the Christmas party at Clara Stahlbaum’s (Abby Cannon) home, including the magic orchestrated by Uncle Drosselemeyer (Tiit Helimets). After midnight, a fight erupts between soldiers and mice; and Clara’s Nutcracker Prince (Joseph Walsh) comes to life. The pair journey through a blizzard-y forest to reach the Crystal Palace, where performances from around the globe abound. I still find it odd that a grown-up version of Clara takes the Sugar Plum Fairy solo, but the entire production is bright, fun, and beautifully danced by the entire company.
Gorgeous performances were evident right from the get-go, with Act I’s party scene. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how phenomenal the students from SFB’s school were as party guests and soldiers (as well as in various roles in Act II). They were 100% on in their spacing, timing and energy. Not to mention the glorious look on their faces. It was clear that they had missed performing before an audience and were thrilled to return to the stage. The battle featured some wonderful characterization, especially Alexander Reneff-Olson’s delightfully maniacal King of the Mice. And then, we were bound for the wintery woods. With Michael Yeargan’s dreamy scenic design and Tchaikovsky’s wondrous waltz, this snow scene absolutely glistens. And Tomasson’s choreography and dance architecture is both lovely and fitting. As the corps moves in and out of formations and clusters, they create pictures that appear and disappear with grace and ingenuity. Just like snow itself. The pas de deux for the Queen and King of the Snow (danced by Yuan Yuan Tan and Henry Sidford) was appropriately elegant, if not a little bumpy from time to time.
But if there was an award for best performance of the night, it most certainly belongs to Nikisha Fogo. In her SFB debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Fogo sparkled. With flawless technique and brilliant stage presence, Fogo commanded the space whether taking a simple step forward or floating around a complex turn. As mentioned, in this Nutcracker, she does not dance to the Tchaikovsky music named for her, nor in the grand pas de deux at the end of Act II. Instead, her primary task is presiding over the Waltzing Flowers. She was sweepingly regal throughout the lengthy group sequence – arms were simultaneously strong and flowing; every jump had such height and levity. It was something to behold and Act II was full of these memorable moments.
Many of the individual variations feature an odd number (pas de trois, pas de cinq), which makes for deep, rich choreographic possibilities. The unison in the Spanish, French and Russian divertissements was particularly good, as were Walsh and Frances Chung in the final grand pas de deux, variations and coda. Chung was the epitome of balance in her solo and Walsh’s tours landed with such calmness and control. The entire evening was really quite dazzling. And the audience showed their delight. It’s not often that I’ve seen a Nutcracker receive a standing ovation, but as the curtain fell and Clara ran to greet her mother, there was nothing to do but stand and applaud.