On Saturday night as rain pummeled Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco Ballet performers ticked off dances as flowers, snow, candy, Cossacks and rats in the annual “Nutcracker” at the War Memorial Opera House, marking the 16th season of the company’s beautifully minimalist ballet choreographed by artistic director Helgi Tomasson.
Set in San Francisco in 1915 during the Panama Pacific International Exposition, the two-act ballet (first created in Russia 1892) is as airy as it is charming, with grand poetic sets by Michael Yeargan and pitch-perfect costumes by the late Martin Pakledinaz. These haven’t changed. What’s new this year are degrees of nuance, astute staging and emotional depth that give the ballet a complexity that holds the production together as never before.
That complexity began with Ricardo Bustamante’s portrait of Herr Drosselmeyer, clockmaker and magician. Bustamante sends out mysterious depth waves soon after he arrives at the Stahlbaum’s house. With dramatic arms, a flamenco-dancer’s posture and stealth timing, Bustamante is Drosselmeyer the arch wizard and Stahlbaum godfather, whose Freudian bond with his goddaughter Clara is the force that ignites a fantastical coming-of-age story. He opens the door for everyone gathered to create and expect the unexpected.
Clara, portrayed by young Matoi Kawamoto, was her own kind of wizard, lighting up the often-dutiful party scene with unselfconscious elegance and warmth. Max Behrman-Rosenberg as wiry troublemaking Fritz was a terrific counterpoint, aptly vying to be center of attention. Myles Thatcher helped, too, performing Dr. Stahlbaum as a vivid dad with a sweet toughness that kept generating little fires of comedy. He was equaled by Miranda Silveira as the housekeeper, whose minimalist comic actions enlivened the busy Nob Hill party scene.
Nuance was everything in Mathilde Froustey’s portrait of Queen of the Flowers. Blending the gentle loveliness of Glinda the Good Witch with Audrey Hepburn-esque coquetry, Froustey gathered not only flowers but unseen forces of sensual care with gorgeous shading and curving in the head and upper body that brought warmth to otherwise banal choreography.
The depth touched production values, too, so often overlooked in a stripped-down ballet. James F. Ingalls’ lighting no longer felt as hard as a jeweler’s, weaving pink and golden tones with cooler blues to create an aura of enchantment in the Waltz of the Flowers’ gosssamer-like atmosphere. The painted backdrops were vivid, and the dancers’ physical stagings were layered, creating a complexity that too often has been lacking.
The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra under Marc Taddei gave Tchaikovsky’s exquisite score an almost tactile quality that carried the other elements along.
But the production edged toward comic nightmare at times. After Madison Keesler and Benjamin Freemantle danced a restrained but lovely Queen and King of the Snow, the stage was overtaken by an atmospheric river of white dumping on the large cast of Snowflakes, leaving patrons bolted to their seats, wondering how the darting corps could stave off asphyxiation from the tornado of fake snow. A couple of inches covered the stage floor by the end.
Jennifer Stahl in Arabian lacked nuance, dancing the genie with incessant point-blank appeal, neither winking at or inviting the audience. Had she conspired with us a bit, the diva turn would have injected irony into a role typically approached as earnest schtick.
In the final Grad Pas de Deux, Frances Chung as a transformed Clara and Joseph Walsh as the Nutcracker-turned-prince dispensed with magic as an atmospheric condition, serving virtuosity as a moral state — physical prowess as pure commitment.
Chung injected poetry and perfume into her pinprick legwork and was met with Walsh’s lovely lyricism and boyish grandeur. The house cheered, and after the two ratcheted up the bravura turns, leaps and split-leg penchees, the drama quieted, returning to sleeping Clara in Act 1, and to a world renewed.
San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 2 and 7 p.m. daily; except 7 p.m. only Dec. 17; 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 18; 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Dec. 24; 2 p.m. only Dec. 29, no performance Christmas Day; closes Dec. 29
Tickets: $25 to $199
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org