Friday, December 24, 2010

San Francisco Ballet - "Nutcracker"

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA
December 15, 2010

Like so many other Bay Area residents, San Francisco Ballet's “Nutcracker” is a favorite holiday tradition of mine - one that I missed greatly when I was living on the East Coast. So, walking through the familiar doors of the War Memorial Opera House to see Helgi Tomasson's magnificent production was particularly special this year. It was like coming home.

Lorena Feijoo in Tomasson's "Nutcracker" - Photo credit: Erik Tomasson
If you believe “Nutcracker” is just more December fluff, you just haven't seen a good (or in San Francisco Ballet's case, a great) version yet. Tomasson's interpretation of Clara Stahlbaum's story not only captures the fun, fantasy and festivity of childhood but also communicates the more complex narrative elements, specifically that of guidance. At every point in Clara's journey, there are stabilizing forces for her to rely upon: at the party, it is her parents; during the battle, the Nutcracker Prince becomes her protector; in the forest, the Snow King and Queen steer her in the right direction and upon arriving in the 'Land of Sweets', she meets yet another role model, the Sugar Plum Fairy. Although each of these characters is very different, their interactions with Clara speak to a common denominator. Like any child, she needs those in her life to be helpful, trustworthy and dependable, and they all fulfill that requirement.

In this particular version (which premiered in 2004), Tomasson made some bold and somewhat risky choices for the Sugar Plum Fairy. In his ballet, she still presides over the 'Land of Sweets' with a combination of strength and softness; regal but not at all overbearing. She facilitates the different character dances and welcomes Clara to bear witness to the wonder and excitement. With that persona, it makes perfect sense for her to lead the Waltz of the Flowers. This is not the case in every “Nutcracker”. Often, a few of the flowers or even a completely different character are designated the soloist(s), but here, Tomasson opted (very appropriately) for the lead dancer in this variation to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. At the end of Act II, the Sugar Plum Fairy's role is also very different than most “Nutcrackers”. The variation and grand pas de deux typically danced by the SPF is instead given to grown-up Clara. But, the Sugar Plum Fairy still maintains her facilitating role in these final events. It is she who introduces the transformed Clara to her Cavalier Prince and subsequent invites them to command the stage.

Though I absolutely love SFB's “Nutcracker”, it is impossible to ignore the growing pains that are happening in the women's corps de ballet. The senior corps members are the saving grace; veteran dancers who know that the snow scene and the waltz of the flowers are not the moments to pull focus. They understand that these two dances require team cohesiveness, synchronicity and exact timing. Some of the newer dancers haven't completely grasped what it means to be in the corps and how important the corps is. Several of them were acting like soloists during these group dances inserting overly dramatic hand gestures along with piqué arabesques and developpés that were way too high compared to everyone else (incidentally making them late for the next steps). Show off your technical capabilities in class, rehearsal and auditions, not in these two scenes. And, most important, learn from the senior corps members – they are an invaluable resource.

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