SF Ballet’s kicks off the holiday season with a dazzling performance of The Nutcracker

Nutcracker at the San Francisco Ballet
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By Lynnette Jackson and Jack Marquez

Uncle Drosselmeyer presenting Clara with her beloved Nutcracker. Photo copyrighted by Reneff-Olson Productions.

When American audiences first experienced the holiday classic The Nutcracker, it was at the War Memorial Opera House, performed by the San Francisco Ballet. This holiday season, nearly 80 years later, it was our pleasure to attend Tchaikovsky’s Christmas creation at the same spectacular venue. Though this Russian piece is over a century old, it remains a beloved Christmas tradition worldwide, providing world-class dancers and musicians like those in the San Francisco Ballet the opportunity to display their prowess and share their passion with delighted audiences.

If you celebrate the holiday, The Nutcracker’s iconic themes are likely already playing in the background of your Christmas gatherings. If you have the means, though, we highly recommend experiencing them in person at the San Francisco Ballet!

The Stahlbaum holiday party at the beginning of the show. Photo copyrighted by Reneff-Olson Productions.

The story opens with a gorgeous wintry set, onto snow-covered city streets outside toymaker Uncle Drosselmeyer’s shop. These early scenes don’t feature as much dance as one might expect from a ballet, but they do set the scene beautifully and introduce the personalities of our characters through thoughtful, dialogue-free choreography.

The dancing does arrive soon enough, though! The sumptuously decorated ballroom floor of the Stahlbaum house comes to life as adults and children alike step two-by-two into the holiday spirit. We witness Uncle Drosselmeyer unveil delightful life-size dancing toys, including the titular Nutcracker, received by Clara, our heroine.

As night falls and Clara drifts off to sleep, the set undergoes a magical transformation. In an impressive feat of production design, the room around us appears to grow as we shrink to the size of toys, and with a massive Christmas tree soaring far above our heads, the adventure truly begins.

The Nutcracker leading his troops in the battle against the Mouse King’s soldiers. Photo copyrighted by Reneff-Olson Productions.

Just as Clara is finding her footing in this new environment, a battle erupts! The dastardly Mouse King and his rodent minions engage in heated (but family-friendly) combat with the gallant Nutcracker and his toy soldiers. Clara helps win the day with a well-placed mousetrap, but not before the Nutcracker is mortally wounded. When all seems lost, Uncle Drosselmeyer reappears to magically heal the Nutcracker and transform him into a prince.

The Prince and Clara then embark on a musical adventure, journeying through the Land of Snow and the Crystal Palace garden festival. Their enchanted sleighride complete, Clara wakes up back in the real world, and goes on to celebrate Christmas Day with the Nutcracker at her side.

The Snow King and Queen dancing together in celebration. Photo copyrighted by Reneff-Olson Productions.

The Nutcracker’s simple but timeless narrative results in a story that’s easy to follow without dialogue or narration, providing room for the San Francisco Ballet’s dancers and musicians to shine. The orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s themes beautifully throughout, but it was the ballet dancers who stole the show. A diverse group from ballet schools both local and abroad, they performed their parts with incredible finesse.

The Jack-in-the-Box, toy ballerina, and the Nutcracker performed wonderful solos in the first half of the show, and the second half featured spectacular dancing from beginning to end. The garden celebration featured performances by sugar plum fairies, a genie, carnival performers, and an interpretation of a traditional Chinese wu long dragon dance. Our personal favorite was the charismatic trio of Russian dancers, featuring a soloist whose successive leaps and turns captivated audience members.

Other highlights included the duets between the Snow King and Queen, and the duet between Clara and the Nutcracker. The Snow King and Queen’s duet took place right before intermission. As they were joined by snowflakes, snow began to fall from the ceiling above the stage, lending a magical element to the performance. The second duet concluded the second act, as the Sugar Plum fairy granted Clara’s final wish. Now transformed into a ballerina princess, Clara and the Prince delighted the audience with a solo piece each and an enthralling duet.

Clara and the Nutcracker sharing a dance after the Sugar Plum Fairy transforms them into a ballerina and her prince. Photo copyrighted by Reneff-Olson Productions. 

In addition to the fantastic dancers, the set design was something to behold. The pieces for the exterior and interior of the Stahlbaum house were beautiful. In the Land of Snow, the ballet dancers performed through an astonishing 150 pound shower of artificial snow, transforming the stage into a winter wonderland.  The ballet dancers stood out from the scenery thanks to richly detailed costumes that glittered in the stage lights. The show was clearly executed with the utmost care and attention to detail, a true visual treat on top of a timeless soundtrack.

All-in-all, this was a lovely performance to attend. The Nutcracker has become an annual tradition for the SF Ballet, so fear not if you cannot make it this year! A rotating cast means that every showing has a slightly different cast, lending an element of uniqueness to each performance. On the night we attended, Pascal Molat starred as Uncle Drosselmyer, Danielle Hillman starred as Clara and Cavan Conley starred as the Nutcracker.

We’re looking forward to seeing what the SF Ballet has in store for us in 2024. Until then, we wish you a safe and very happy holiday season! 

The soloist during the Russian trio performance, captured mid-leap. Photo copyrighted by Reneff-Olson Productions. 


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