San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
December 9, 2011
by Rita Felciano
Copyright © Rita Felciano, 2011
Helgi Tomasson choreographed San Francisco Ballet's current "Nutcracker" in 2004; it took the place of a much beloved and tinkered with version that went back to Willam Christensen's 1944 first full-length American version. The "new" classic was elegant, exquisitely designed but also felt cool; the first act refined but mannered, the second act's divertissements having a preserved-under glass unsularity about them.
The Stahlbaum's residence is one of these grand Victorian San Francisco homes without the starch and heavy drapery. These people are at ease with each other and family and friends. The ballet is set around the period of the Panama Pacific International Exhibition, shortly before World War I. Modernity -- electricity, photography -- had arrived, but just barely. The Stahlbaum family and their clan enjoy a life of relaxed but elegant comfort.
On this year's opening night, the first act had a lovely ease and gentle humor about it. The gestural language, which at one point looked so painted on, is beginning to look ingrained and natural. Small details provided their own pleasure: Ricardo Bustamante's Dr. Stahlbaum, his chest swelling with love and pride when dancing with Clara, a charming prepubescent Nicole Finken; Anita Paciotti as the grand-mother, not dottering but just a little slower, yet still lovingly bossing husband (Jorge Esquivel) who looked like President Taft with a glass or two. Or one of the maids (Dores Andre) who partners grandpa's cane in a dance step or two of her own. Or how about the small detail of Drosselmeyer's (good mix of uncle and magician in Val Caniparoli) wearing white spats, his one acknowledgement to contemporary fashions. The color also, of course, nicely accentuates footwork, something the Bournonville slipper has done for over a hundred years.
In the "dancing" roles Clara Blanco's Doll managed to be beautifully mechanical as well as musical. Garen Scribner's Bajazzo, despite a couple of near misses, nicely integrated a rubber-legged straw man with a sinewy athlete. For some unfathomable reason, the strutting King of the Mice (Daniel Deivison), who finds his end in the orchestra pit, again reminded me of Mick Jagger. In many productions the King and Queen of the Snow almost disappear into the Snowflakes but when they are as exquisitely danced -- two bodies, one soul -- as they were by Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan -- they become major focal points. In a charming touch, Tomasson gave them a tiny court, a retinue of three snowflakes. And what a lovely idea by Tchaikovsky, I assume, to have Karapetyan perform his variations to the children's chorus (on tape, unfortunately).
Gennadi Nedvigin is a prince. Gently guiding Clara, he is modest but articulate in his mime when telling the Sugar Plum Fair (a sunny, solid, perhaps a little too routine Frances Chung) his story. Nedvigin is as pure a classicist as SFB currently has among the men. When he sheds his Nutcracker suit and explodes into a series of spectacular leaps against that huge black background, you think he'll stay up there or simply float away. Partnering Maria Kotchekova, he masters the intricate double and triple lifts with ease. If he had a slip in his own variation, this was simply to remind us that he is human.
In Tomasson's version, Clara received a music box in the first act. She enters a mirrored version of it at the end of the entertainments and, thanks to Drosselmeyer's magic touch, the dancers for the Grand Pas de Deux emerge from it. It's a fresh and charming idea by Tomasson, one that also works dramatically as a transition to the finale. Kotchekova, a tiny dancer with exceptional artistic abilities, danced the role as a transformed Clara. In every step, every gesture she was discovering her new self, looking with a child's sense of wonder at a world that has been transformed. Kotchekova's trajectory of that growing recognition of herself was utterly brilliant.
The divertissements were well danced though of middling interest. I still miss the old production's baby angels but fluttering butterflies, crawling ladybugs and jeteing dragonflies will do nicely for the time being. The 'Arabian' (Elana Altman both sensual and self-involved) always looks like one of classical ballet's basic precepts: the man's primary job, here Anthony Spaulding and Quinn Wharton, is that of presenting the woman. The 'French' (Mirliton's) variation almost never works, perhaps because the music is just unspired; Kristina Lind, Mariellen Olson and Jennifer Stahl did what can be done with a ribbon dance. The Waltzing Flowers choreography remains too thin, too scattered, too much like Busby Berkeley.