The Nutcracker

I’m going to try to keep blogging over the next few days, but it’s going to be spotty.  We’re leaving tonight for dinner with friends, and tomorrow I’m getting ready for a family dinner at my house.  Wednesday we’ll be on the road, and I probably won’t have computer access until sometime Thursday.  So, this might be the last post for a day or two — or it might not.

We did something very Christmas-y today:  We went to the San Francisco Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker.  As far as I know, it is the oldest continuous production of the Nutcracker in the United States, going back to the early 1930s.  It’s a very expensively mounted production in the beautiful War Memorial Opera House, a building that dates back to 1932 and that was named to honor America’s World War I soldiers.  I’ve seen the Nutcracker there, intermittently, since about 1966.

As far as I was concerned, this production was something of a mixed bag.  The last time I saw the show, the first half of it was set in 1830s Russia and had an incredibly lavish, colorful set.  This year’s production was somewhat more minimalist.  The initial setting was updated from Russia to 1915 San Francisco, and was much more restrained.  The costumes had more muted colors, and the grand drawing room in which the opening party scene takes place was a bit austere.  To me, accustomed as I’ve become to something more colorful, it felt a bit flat.  The snowflake dance, however, was wondrous, in large part because of how generously they poured down the little plastic flakes of snow.  The ballerinas really did look as if they were dancing through a snow storm and the effect was breathtaking.

The second half was even more mixed.  The dancing was lovely — very strong dancers for the Russian, Arabian and Chinese dances, with competent dancers for the other pieces.  The Sugar Plum Fairy was decent, and the dancers who did the Grand Pas de Deux at the end were excellent — just rock solid in their leaps and spins.  And yet…. Here again, instead of rich, grand and lavish, theproduction went for classy and minimalist, which was so wrong for my expectations.  Instead, of a sparkling, luxe set for the Sugar Plum Fairy’s kingdom, we got a set that looked like an abstract, empty Conservatory of Flowers, with only lights and a few drop down cutouts to convey the mis en scene of a given dance number.

Even worse — almost heresy, as far as I was concerned — was what happened to the Waltz of the Flowers.  The show’s designers halved the number of dancers, halved number of colors in the costumes and, seemingly, halved the numbers of movements in which the corps de ballet engaged, leaving only the Sugar Plum Fairy bouncing around.  For me, the biggest disappointment was the absence of color.  Instead of a lush palette of pink, purple, yellow, orange, green and blue, the costumes were muted pinks, yellows and oranges that blended into each other into a harmonious and bland whole.  (Turns out I wasn’t the only one somewhat disappointed with what should be a lovely show piece.)

Still, although I wish I liked the new production better, it was still a pretty darn good experience.  The orchestra was superb, the dancing was very high quality, and it was mostly an enjoyable experience.  The funniest part was how we ended up there.  We actually weren’t planning on going this year because we’d just gone to Kooza, the current Cirque du Soleil traveling production.  That was going to be our book holiday show.  My son, however, has several classmates who had already seen the Nutcracker and who had told him about the always exciting Russian dance.  He was therefore desperate to go and, when we were lucky enough yesterday to find four tickets on Craigslist, we snatched them up.  The irony was that, with the exception of the Russian dance, my son hated the show.  He’s all boy, and just couldn’t cope with the stylized prettiness of it all!

If you love ballet, see this Nutcracker.  If you like ballet, see this Nutcracker.  Otherwise, don’t see this Nutcracker — it won’t blow you away, so it’s not worth the price of admission.

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  • jj

    Classics become classics because they’re classic.

    I’ve never understood the need to dick around with them, and try to improve – oxymoronically – on perfection.