San Francisco Ballet makes magic
by Paul Parish
San Francisco Ballet's first Nutcracker opened in the midst of World War II, in December 1944. It was the first complete production of this holiday favorite in the United States, and it was a hit. It's run almost continuously at Christmas ever since, and last Friday it opened again in a brilliantly danced version of Helgi Tomasson's production (new in 2004), the longest-running Nutcracker in the history of ballet in the New World.
Our Nutcracker got off to a smashing start. Tchaikovsky's score was already immensely popular in 1944 – the Longine-Whitnauer Society's recording of the Nutcracker Suite was the best-selling record in the land during the Depression, and the Nutcracker choreographed for Disney's Fantasia (which has superb choreography: according to Mark Morris, "the best ever") had just hit the movie screens at the same time.
SFB's then-artistic-director Willam Christensen hit pay dirt with his drenched-in-nostalgia production of the ballet: in 1944, with so many soldiers overseas, so many already killed in action, so many home on leave to marry their sweethearts before going back to the front (my own parents married then), with Bing Crosby's "I'll Be Home for Christmas" at the top of the charts, Nutcracker's family Christmas party hit the boards when there was no scene everybody wanted more to see than a happy family circle: the little girl's Christmas party, her overheated dream of the Christmas tree growing, the whole scene transmogrified, having to fight a monstrous army of rats and conquer her fears, defeat the beasts, and then celebrate in peace and joy in a feast with dancing all night.
Nowadays, we're not living in an era that's filled with nostalgia. We're uneasy. Even with gay marriage on the rise, and gay adoption and family-making turning up in sitcoms and A-list Hollywood movies, the gay angle on Nutcracker would still be an ironic one were it not for the absolute sincerity of Tchaikovsky's music, which idealizes and embraces the family circle and makes it seem more wonderful than Neverneverland. No-one can fail to hear how Tchaikovsky longed for a return to childhood, to the era before sexual desire stuck out its horns and created longings that could not be fulfilled. Tchaikovsky was one of us queers, and he also longed for a kind of home-life and stability he could never have. He did marry, then he nearly succeeded in killing himself to escape the prison his marriage created. In The Nutcracker, he created the world he couldn't inhabit in life.
From the overture on, The Nutcracker creates magic – at first and recurrently, it's the magic of miniaturization. It's in the scoring: the perfect characterizations of the family party – the beloved grandparents, the guests, the brother who breaks your toys, the mind-blowing one-eyed wizardly uncle, the party that gets too exciting and makes you toss and turn in your sleep – the nightmare in which you lose control of your own house to the kitchen-mice and have to fight them off yourself with the help of your favorite Christmas present, the Nutcracker doll your uncle gave you – whereupon a whole other world opens up, grand, brilliant, perfect, until it's enough and you want to go home.
(Photo: Erik Tomasson)
Last Friday night, the dancers had a triumph in making this world come once more into being. Not everyone was perfect, but all the major roles were tremendous, and the show built from strength to strength until the ballerina Frances Chung made a miracle of technical precision and imaginative musicality out of the Grand pas de deux.
The first truly wonderful thing to happen was the magic act at the party. The great dance-actor Damian Smith, who's retiring this year, began his farewell tour with a performance of such power and grace, and such genius performance of Drosselmeyer's magic tricks, that I could not believe my eyes. He made an old man's walking-stick hang in mid-air like Harry Potter did; then it turned over on its side, went dancing around the space, flipped – and then became Grandpa's stick again, as if it were nothing. At the end of the evening, 90 minutes later, in the grand pas, Ms. Chung stepped out onto the point of her toe, and time stood still. She could have been there forever, there was no effort involved – though when the music said to move on, she came down and went on, building her performance into a glorious arc of triumph. She leapt onto her partner's shoulder and perched like a thrush landing on a twig. Darting, whirling, arrested in flight, melting in fondue, there was nothing she could not do, and nothing she would not do and did not do that the music required.
She was vastly assisted by Sophiane Sylve, a dancer of international stature and towering authority (her "super pirouette" YouTube clip has nearly 2,500,000 hits) who used her deep reserves of magic-power to transform the little girl Clara (played with warmth and charm by Natasha Sheehan) into the ballerina (Ms. Chung) who steps into her role and dances at the height of the fantasy on her behalf.
Other outstanding dancers were Jim Sohm, once a Romeo with this company, now the grandfather, who made his moment at the center of things again the moment in which he made his partner, Anita Paciotti (herself a great star of the 1970s and 80s, now the grandmother), the cynosure of all eyes; Clara Blanco, the ballerina doll in the party scene; Sarah van Patten as the Queen of the Snow, who excelled in her task as the sweetest dancer in the company by introducing her partner Luke Ingham, who's brand-new to the company and to the role; Madison Keesler and Nicole Ciapponi as Snowflakes in the thrilling blizzard-dance; Shannon Rugani as a Flower in the Sugar-Plum Fairy's court; and David Karapetyan as the Nutcracker-Prince, the cavalier in the grand pas, whose soft landings and selfless partnering gave us a new model of how a gentleman should carry himself.