Among all the versions of The Nutcracker which are presented around the world at this time of year, there’s one that’s unique – the interpretation which belongs to San Francisco Ballet, created for the Company by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson eleven years ago.
The origins of the original Nutcracker go back to 1891, when Tchaikovsky was commissioned – by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, director of the Imperial Theatres in Russia – to write the score for a ballet based on Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation of E T A Hoffman’s story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. It’s generally accepted that the original choreography was by Lev Ivanov, Second Balletmaster to the St Petersburg Imperial Theatres, working closely with Premier Maître de Ballet, Marius Petipa.
The Nutcracker premiered on December 18, 1892, at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, on a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta. The ballet was considered a failure, but attracted more favorable reviews in subsequent productions, particularly in the United States. On Christmas Eve in 1944, San Francisco Ballet, under Director Willam Christensen, had the honor of presenting the first American staging of The Nutcracker, at the War Memorial Opera House, since when it has become what Alastair Macauley, dance critic of The New York Times, described as “an American institution”.
It was a piece of earlier local history, though, which provided the inspiration for Tomasson’s re-creation of The Nutcracker – the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Hosted by San Francisco to mark the opening of the Panama Canal, the Exposition was also designed to showcase the city’s recovery from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake, and highlight its potential as a center for international trade. The Panama-Pacific theme has a special resonance this year, as San Francisco has been celebrating the centenary of the Exposition throughout 2015.
San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker opens with the traditional Christmas Eve party in the home of the Stahlbaums, which Scenic Designer Michael Yeargan placed in one of the beautiful Victorian houses in Pacific Heights, and the synopsis follows the story of Clara, the Nutcracker doll given to her by ‘Uncle Drosselmeyer’, her vivid dream of the battle between an army of invading mice and the soldiers commanded by the Nutcracker, and his transformation into a handsome Prince.
Continuing her dream, Clara and her Prince travel to the Land of Snow, from where the Snow King and Snow Queen send them, by sleigh, on a magical journey to the garden of the Crystal Palace – inspired by the magnificent Victorian-era glass greenhouse at San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers.
There, amongst the dragonflies, butterflies and ladybugs, the Sugar Plum Fairy presides over a festival of dance for her guests, the variations and scenery reflecting the nationalities of some of the 21 foreign pavilions which were constructed for the 1915 Exposition – Spain, Arabia, China, France and Russia.
The festival reaches its finale with the Sugar Plum fairy joining her floral courtiers in Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous Waltz of the Flowers, after which she and Drosselmeyer grant Clara her greatest wish – transforming her into a ballerina – and she dances a beautiful pas de deux with her Prince.
Clara’s wondrous dream comes to an end as she wakes up on Christmas morning, with her Nutcracker doll in her arms, and memories of her magical journey swirling around in her head.
San Francisco Ballet’s production of Helgi Tomasson’s The Nutcracker opens at the War Memorial Opera House on December 16, and runs until December 31. For further information and tickets, visit www.sfballet.org
San Francisco Ballet
Centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition
Wikipedia with acknowledgements to:
Anderson, J. (1958). The Nutcracker Ballet, New York: Mayflower Books
Fisher, J. (2003). Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World, New Haven: Yale University Press
Macauley, Alastair (10 November 2010). The Sugarplum Diet. The New York Times (New York City). Retrieved 15 November 2010