Monday, December 19, 2022

San Francisco Ballet

San Francisco Ballet in Nutcracker
Photo Quinn Wharton
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
December 17th, 2022

Opening night of last year’s Nutcracker at San Francisco Ballet was special. The company was returning to their home theater, and I would bet that for many patrons, it was their first trip to a live performance in quite some time. Excitement and buzz seemed to levitate the room. A standing ovation closed the evening. As folks filed out of the opera house, one could sense the smiles beneath their masks. Former Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s two-act ballet wasn’t just a holiday tradition that night, it was a community celebration. 

2022’s Nutcracker was equally special, but in a very different way. Still festive, to be sure, but there was something else in the air. Normalcy. All the kids from the school were back onstage, in the party scene and as the tiny, little ladybugs at the opening of Act II. Many of the audience still opted for masks, but the mood in the seats was certainly less charged and more relaxed. Like the collective was recognizing a much-needed moment of repose, relief and joy.

Tomasson’s Nutcracker (2004) has a terrific sense of forward motion, which is especially appreciated in the parts of Act I that can tend to drag. Charm and revelry reign at the Stahlbaum Christmas Eve party, magic pervading the landscape. Clara (Piper O’Leary Herreras at this performance) receives an unforgettable present, a Nutcracker, and as midnight strikes, the figure comes to life. A battle ensues between mice, soldiers and the Nutcracker, and after declaring victory, the pair journey through a frozen forest to a palace of dance. When you’ve seen the same Nutcracker for many years, you forget how impressive the tricks, illusions and scenes truly are – the seven-year-old sitting next to me exclaimed several times, “how did they do that?” An excellent reminder of the level of production we were witnessing.

Instead of going on opening night, this year, I opted to take in one of the weekend matinees. In addition to the infectious kid energy at any afternoon performance, the other benefit is that the cast is more varied. In past years, opening night has tended to feature the same dancers, so it’s nice to see other interpretations of Nutcracker’s many roles. Standouts included Elizabeth Powell and Lonnie Weeks as Queen and King of the Snow as well as Jennifer Stahl as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Tomasson’s choreography for the snow scene embodies winter weather in all its forms. Delicate and ethereal flurries expressed through lithe pas de chat; sharp and fierce blizzards through darting posé arabesque. Powell, Weeks and the snowflake corps captured every nuance. Stahl was the epitome of elegance, leading the flowers (whose costumes are getting a bit dated) through their famous waltz.

But by far, the standout couple was Esteban Hernández as the Nutcracker and Katherine Barkman as grown-up Clara. Hernández’s dancing is the ultimate combination of smooth, lofty and technically superb, while Barkman’s grace and delicacy injected the grand pas de deux with a unique lightness. Act II’s variations were all quite good, particularly the Spanish, which is short but deceptively tricky, and the Russian. And there was an unsung hero who must be acknowledged. As the battle sequence was beginning, a piece of costuming inadvertently dropped center stage. That kind of thing happens all the time, but the surprising thing was that dancer after dancer moved by it and just left it there in the middle of the action. Finally, one of the mice dropped to the ground in a roll and unobtrusively scooped it up. Bravo!

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