Legend has it that Tchaikovsky was not satisfied with his “Nutcracker” score. It is hard to know what the Russian composer would say about the iconic ballet music today, more than 100 years after he wrote it, but he would undoubtedly be baffled by the ballet’s relentless popularity.
The San Francisco Ballet’s current “Nutcracker,” onstage through Dec. 29, holds its own as a seasonal pleasure. Yet while the show offers gorgeous sets and costumes and entertaining performances by company members in a range of frilly, virtuosic and theatrical roles, some of artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s choreography could use an update.
Set in San Francisco during the 1915 World’s Fair, complete with painted ladies on stage sets, the production makes “Nutcracker” feel at home in The City.
Partygoers brave the fog as they venture to the Stahlbaum home for a Christmas Eve party. On Wednesday’s opening night, Ruben Martin Cintas hammed it up as sometime sorcerer Uncle Drosselmeyer.
The young Juliet Doherty is a charming Clara, competent for more difficult choreography than she was given.
The pantomime doll dance in the first act, beautifully articulated by Myles Thatcher, is always a treat. Limp and lithe, Thatcher moves like a naive yet world-weary clown whose spring is winding down. Elizabeth Powell, perky and pert in a pink tutu, is his opposite, but equally adorable and precise. James Sofranko gives a buoyant and authoritative preview of the Nutcracker, who appears later in Clara’s dream.
The battle scene needs more oomph. Despite the furious music, momentum doesn’t build, and the battle is brief and bloodless. Clara nails the Mouse King with a trap instead of her shoe, which feels sterile and lacks spontaneity.
Frances Chung, partnered by Jaime Garcia Castilla, is a radiant Snow Queen. The snow scene, a highlight, is a place where Tomasson does not shy away from embracing the full whimsy, even passion, of the great score.
Similarly, the grand pas de deux, danced flawlessly by Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada, is among Tomasson’s high points, and a satisfying closure to the ballet. Like the final pas de deux in “The Sleeping Beauty,” Tchaikovsky’s tone is melancholic. Clara’s nightmare, which morphed into a pretty dream, is about to end.
Kochetkova, light as a feather, is soundless, much like Boada, whose bounding leaps land with equal softness. And the torque-tastic Vanessa Zahorian is a spinning top of a Sugar Plum Fairy.
Tchaikovsky is a master storyteller, and ballet’s most intuitive composer. As cymbals crash, timpanis rumble, winds whistle and strings soar, obvious motifs rise to the surface communicating snow flurries, cannons, clashing swords and even cultural nuances. The score should be appreciated in synchronicity with the dancing, not separate from it; in this “Nutcracker,” pantomime and posing take precedent over dancing too often.
Presented by the San Francisco Ballet
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 2 and 7 p.m. daily, except 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Dec, 24, no performance Dec. 25, and 2 p.m. only on closing day Dec. 29
Tickets: $28 to $250
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org