Here in The City, where the country’s fascination with the “Nutcracker” began at the 1892 Petipa-Ivanov ballet’s American premiere in 1944, the annual rite of passage has become a major economic and educational force.
Popular as it is around the world, there is no match for the work’s ubiquity in the U.S. Some 800 productions occur annually in more than 120 cities. In San Francisco, the “Nutcracker” season consists of 31 performances, drawing an audience close to 100,000 and providing San Francisco Ballet with income in the millions.
Even with industrial-strength numbers, San Francisco Ballet’s current production staged by company Director Helgi Tomasson remains an individualistic experience.
Children make up almost half the audience, and the spectacular production serves as an irresistible introduction to ballet. At Saturday’s matinee, by the time the exquisite “Grand Pas de Deux” with Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets arrived at the end, balletomanes of all ages gave the ovation.
Helimets, in top form, wowed as the Nutcracker Prince. Anthony Spaulding and Elana Altman were the regal King and Queen of the Snow; Dores Andre made a fine role debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Martin West conducted the orchestra in a confident, sonorous performance.
Michael Yeargan’s scenery, set during the 1915 World’s Fair, and Martin Pakledinaz’s sumptuous costumes elicited oohs and aahs, especially in the battle between the mice and toy soldiers, the growing Christmas tree and the biggest onstage blizzard seen in local “Nutcracker” history.
Daniel Baker’s Russian virtuosity was an audience favorite in a second-act appearance with Diego Cruz and Lonnie Weeks. “The Waltz of Flowers” seemed to pay too much attention to beauty of line at the expense of liveliness.
A rarely mentioned, but essential aspect of San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” are the volunteers. Those who don’t witness the twice-daily confluence of 3,200 people have no idea of the enormity of the ushers’ task.
Children don’t represent their biggest challenge, either. One veteran usher says, “At least, when they throw up, they feel better.”
Most difficulties come from adults new to the War Memorial Opera House who don’t know that performances start on time, there is no late seating, booster cushions are for children only and food and drink are not permitted. Who deals with all that? Yes, it’s about time to take an usher to lunch.
Presented by San Francisco Ballet
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 2 and 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Dec. 24; no performance Christmas Day, closes Dec. 27
Tickets: $22 to $275
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org/nutcracker