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DVD Review

San Francisco Ballet - 'Nutcracker'

Reviewed by Leland Windreich

Published March 2009

The San Francisco Ballet is not only the oldest ballet company in North America, but it was the first to produce a full-length production of “The Nutcracker” in the West. The year was 1944, and director Willam Christensen and a company of unpaid local dancers and ballet students introduced a version which would ultimately be emulated by hundreds of companies, both modest and mature, to create a production in their community as a seasonal attraction.

The lovely version presented in the DVD this year is the fifth one for SFB, following the original show and three reworkings by the Brothers Christensen.  The production is opulent, set in San Francisco in the year of the Panama Pacific International Exposition (1915), and the essence of the fair permeates the milieu that the ballet creates.  This is a relatively traditional production, with most of the beloved scenes and dances intact, many of them modestly reshaped or, in a few cases, dramatically reconceived by Helgi Tomasson. The opening scenes are performed in mime by a group of folks in Edwardian winter attire with Christmas activities on their minds, strolling before a scrim dominated by a row of San Francisco’s “painted ladies.”  Inside one of these is the warm, inviting parlor where Clara and her family entertain their friends and neighbors on Christmas Eve.

Hosts and guests are dressed in Edwardian finery in a range of soft pastel shades.

Their interactions are gracious and congenial, as ancient grandparents mingle with dignified guests and their lively tot-to-teen offsprings.  When Drosselmeyer appears in his piebald attire, he looks like an elderly hippie.

He appears in all the scenes of the ballet, and Tomasson has rethought the roles of the principal dancers.  Clara is played by a teen-ager named Elizabeth Powell.  The Nutcracker is portrayed by the striking David Karapetyan, who accompanies the girl on her journey and partners Maria Kochetkova in the traditional pas de deux. She is the result of a magical transformation of Clara into an elegant ballerina.  The Sugar Plum Fairy (Vanessa Zaharian) is the hostess of the final scene and heads the Waltz of the Flowers.  The Snow Queen and King are danced by Yuan Yuan Tan and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba.  Thus the production offers opportunities for five of SFB’s splendid dancers to display their talents in classical excellence.

The highlight of the production is the scene in which the Christmas tree grows and the walls of the drawing room dissolve, setting the stage for the battle of the mice and toy soldiers.  After that, the visual elements seem somewhat muted.  The second act takes place under the dome of a world’s fair pavilion, sketchily represented by a fragment of the structure, which results in a sense of emptiness on the stage.  Tomasson’s choreography, especially for the group ensembles, seems restrained at times and has the cautiousness of many of his classical works.

SFB has a large contingent of splendid male dancers, several of whom are given a chance to display their gifts.  Outstanding is Karapetyan, a reincarnation of Igor Youskevitch, whose flowing line and dark good looks complement a command of an ebullient technique.  The partnership of Vilanova and Tan seems made in heaven, her spikey brilliance contrasting with his confident, regal display. 

In 1944, the total budget for decors was $2000, and designer Russell Hartley raided the San Francisco thrift shops for fabrics, acquiring as well yards of draperies from a demolished movie palace.  “No expense spared” designs by scenic artist Martin Yeargan and costumer Martin Pakledinaz were commissioned for this 2004 production, an appropriate investment for a company considered one of the five best ballet organizations in America today.

San Francisco Ballet Association and KQED.  Opus Arte OA 1002 D.  $29.95

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