Review: A crackerjack of a `Nutcracker'

It's official: The City's holiday season began at 7 p.m. on Thursday.

That's when the curtain went up on the San Francisco Ballet's “Nutcracker” in the War Memorial. The throng of well-dressed and well-behaved children provided a lively juxtaposition with the amazing record of the Tchaikovsky classic here. It's the 63rd “Nutcracker” season; the work's 1944 American premiere reaches into the 21st century in a rejuvenated, robust production.

What started with William Christensen's U.S. presentation of the 1892 Ivanov-Petipa masterpiece, and was modified twice now by company artistic director Helgi Tomasson, is anything but a museum piece.

Following the long, happy run (1986-2003) of Jose Varona's fairy tale sets and costumes, the current version is employing the elegant, handsome Michael Yeargan scenic design, placing the action in San Francisco of a century ago, and setting the story as Clara's dream, young Lacey Escabar carrying the role splendidly.

The Act 1 story is as ever before, but without the dancing bear (a small cub shows up, rather curiously, in the Mother Goose number, now renamed “Madame du Cirque and Her Buffoons”), and Act 2 parades the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, French and Russian dances.

While all went well on premiere night, Garrett Anderson, with Daniel Deivision and Matthew Stewart, brought the house down deservedly in their hyperkinetic Russian number.

In the current Tomasson version, the relationship between the young principals of Act 1 (Clara and Fritz) and the “grownup” leading dancers is somewhat hazy. While we meet Davit Karapetyan's wonderful, fully airborne Nutcracker Prince early in Act 1, Clara's transformation awaits the Grand Pas de Deux — with a terrific debut.

Maria Kochetkova, the company's newest import from Russia (via the English National Ballet), is a “different” dancer. Quite without the thin, elongated figure of a typical ballerina, the tiny dancer has it all: a self-possessed, intense, regal artist, she exudes the air of a genuine star. While she and Karapetyan haven't had much chemistry, individually they put on a virtuoso show.

Rachel Viselli's Sugar Plum Fairy, Sarah Van Patten's and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba's Snow Queen and King contributed to the evening's over-all excellence, anchored in impeccable Corps de Ballet performances, and Martin West's direction of the Ballet Orchestra in its finest early-season form.

Kudos to the audience: considering the large number of children — including an inappropriate under-5 contingent — it was simply amazing how quiet it was in the Opera House during the performance. There were exceptions, of course, mostly adults, some individual cases of juvenile fidget, and that steadily conversing couple in Row N. But in my 30-plus years of “Nutcrackers,” the Thursday audience was best by a long shot.

IF YOU GO

Nutcracker

Presented by San Francisco Ballet

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 15-16, 18-23 and 26-29; 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Dec. 24; 2 p.m. Dec. 30

Tickets: $18 to $160

Contact: (415) 865-2000 or www.sfballet.org

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