David L. Kirk
, May 2009
This is a wonderful production of Nutcracker, although it must be noted that it is not strictly traditional. The time and location have been shifted to 1915 San Francisco. The second act, usually located in The Kingdom of Sweets (or Candy Land, or Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy) has been placed in a pavilion at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. The act I setting in a Victorian “painted lady” and Edwardian costumes are still remote enough from today that the production retains a period flavor.
The first act is fairly faithful to the traditional story line: Christmas party, magical happenings at midnight, battle between soldiers and mice, ending with the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” Instead of immobilizing the Mouse King by throwing her shoe, Clara distracts him and he steps into a large mousetrap. Clara and the Nutcracker travel to the Land of Snow in a glittering sleigh pulled by four horses with ingenious heads reminiscent of costumes from Equus. There is a spectacular snowfall during the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” Throughout the act are many ingenious and effective special effects.
The second act, relocated to a pavilion at the Fair (identified as The Pavilion of Dreams), has many clever touches. Fitting with an international exposition, representatives from various countries arrive. A genie emerges from a large Aladdin’s lamp in the “Arabian Dance”; the Russian dancers leap out of giant Fabergé eggs, and Mother Ginger is transformed into Madame du Cirque whose copious gown is a large, festive three-ring circus tent from which emerges a dancing bear. The young Clara steps into a mirrored chamber and emerges as an adult to dance the pas de deux and variations usually assigned to the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince. This is a first-class production with brilliant dancing, imaginative special effects, colorful costumes, and attractive scenery. Like many other productions of Nutcracker, the choreographer grounds the story line in reality by letting us know that all the fantastic happenings are merely Clara’s dream. For me, at least, that spoils the magic; it’s much more fun to pretend all the amazing events that begin at midnight really do happen. Telling us it was “just a dream” is like coming on stage after a magician has finished his act and announcing, “It’s an illusion, folks. The lady wasn’t sawn in half.” Do we really want a pin stuck in our balloon?
This San Francisco Nutcracker is on a par with Royal Ballet (their newer video from 2000 with Anthony Dowell’s incomparable Drosselmeyer), the Balanchine (with unnecessary interpolations and narration), and The Hard Nut, a clever, updated Nutcracker by Mark Morris. There are a plethora of Nutcracker videos; I’ve seen about a dozen of them. All have good and weak points, many dependent on the viewer’s likes and dislikes, but I would recommend the Royal Ballet, Balanchine, The Hard Nut (noting that it is significantly untraditional), and this San Francisco for serious consideration as first choices. All of the Nutcrackers that I’ve seen on video are, for lack of a better term, over-filmed, including this San Francisco. The image relentlessly shifts between cameras every second or two, there are many close-ups highlighting details that often aren’t important, pans, and dissolves that temporarily blur both images. Choreographer Helgi Tomasson has provided plenty of movement; we don’t need artificial action created by excessive editing. I sincerely hope that any of you who watch this video aren’t as bothered by the film direction as I was; the San Francisco Nutcracker deserves to be seen.
The bonus features, except for the First Republic Bank ad, are very interesting. Helgi Tomasson (choreographer, artistic director), Michael Yeargan (scenic designer), and Martin Pakledinaz (costume designer) in three separate interviews discuss their roles in creating the production. A separate track is devoted to the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition with many historic photos. I wish the Cast Gallery or the booklet had included biographies of the principal dancers.
The picture is 16/9 anamorphic (wide screen), the sound formats are LPCM stereo and digital surround. Subtitles for the documentaries are in French, German, Spanish, and Italian.