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David L. Kirk
Fanfare, 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.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, March 2009

With the tremendous popularity of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker as a children’s Christmas entertainment, the San Francisco Ballet’s changing of scene from Russia at the turn of the century to post-earthquake San Francisco does no harm, and basing the exotic scenes of Act II on the San Francisco World’s Fair of 1915 proves a delightfully imaginative departure from the original (OA1002D). Although hardly the best-danced DVD of this ballet (Elizabeth Powell as Clara, Davit Karapetyan as the Nutcracker Prince and Pierre-François Vilanoba as the Snow King stand out above the others) it is infectiously enjoyable, with colorful costumes and sets. The great score is supplely played by Martin West and the S. F. Ballet Orchestra, the video is fine as is the sound in all three formats. Extras include interviews and a fascinating short film about the 1915 Fair.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, December 2008

A new production and choreography updates Tchaikovsky’s popular ballet to San Francisco at the beginning of the 20th century with a visual spectacular that mixes the new with the old. I think the long sequence of old photographs that is used in the prologue will become tiresome on repeated viewing, but the remainder of the first act is highly imaginative and is far more active and colourful than in now familiar choreography. The dress is stunning, the set massive and the visual trickery sufficient to delight any young viewer, The problem for producer, Helgi Tomasson, comes with the second act, and here he has to slip back into the conventional costumes and scenario, and at that stage you ask yourself ‘does this improve on such well-known versions as the one by Balanchine’? Well maybe not, but you have to admire Tomasson’s creativity and his feel for the music. The performance took place in the War Memorial Opera House, the enormous stage allowing for some spectacular backdrops that still leaves the dancers with a massive area in which to work. Throughout you have the feel that this is primarily a company performance, the technically excellent Elizabeth Powell and Davit Karapetyan, as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, being part of a cast that is so uniformly accomplished. The corps de ballet is well schooled in the big formal scenes, yet appearing nicely spontaneous in the opening act. The sound engineers have missed out on capturing some of Tchaikovsky’s subtle orchestral colours and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra percussion needed some microphone help. Visually it is as good as any ballet I have seen on disc, and I much commend it to you.

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