Leigh Donlan muses on the 2013 Nutcracker season:
Ah, it’s that time of year again, when children’s eyes glisten with visions of Sugar Plum fairies and sticky sweets. As a former dancer and, later, Children’s Ballet Mistress on many a Nutcracker production, this season often brings feelings of delight… and dread. It’s called “Nutty Season” in the dance world for a reason. From wardrobe malfunctions to last minute cast changes, from melodramatic diva meltdowns to parents vying for a better role for their child, there is never a dull moment behind the scenes.
One season, I remember developing an eye twitch that flared up every time I heard “The Waltz of the Flowers,” which I was performing in. One of my fellow company members was a notorious stoner and would often space out on stage. She missed a few of her entrance cues, staring straight into those bright lights in the wings, but then, you know, those Flowers are all rushing on and off stage, it’s pretty chaotic anyway, I doubt anyone in the audience noticed that one Flower was a little buzzed.
There was also the time that our Mouse King was so horribly hung-over that he had to run offstage to vomit. The audience never guessed.
Then there were the halo accidents. I was in charge of the Angels in one production – a lovely piece at the end of the first act, where the rosy-cheeked cherubs send Clara and her Prince off to The Land of Sweets. The Angels were all between seven and eight years old, and wore beautiful golden halos that had to be properly shellacked and pinned to their heads by the costume department. As they ran on stage, a mesh netting that had been suspended over the stage during the previous scene was being hoisted. I guess the girls were all so excited they scampered on a little faster than usual, right into the netting. Some of the halos caught on the mesh, pulling apart the Angels’ tidy hair-buns and leaving a few sore scalps. No one was seriously hurt, no one screamed, the Angels all made their marks, and there were no lawsuits from horrified parents.
This is, above all, the valuable lesson that even the youngest dancers learn from Nutcracker year after year: you can’t panic on stage. We’re in this together. Those folks in the audience are expecting magic, and magic we will give them.
Nutcracker season is indeed a labor of love, and also a sticky, messy business. But we’re spoiled in the Bay Area to have a phenomenal range of holiday dance treats. So if the Sugar Plum Fairy is really not your thing, that is no excuse not to get off the couch and out of your pyjamas. Nothing beats a live performance and, while we long for a production in which Clara wakes up and realizes that Drosselmeyer had slipped her a roofie, thus inducing the whole hallucinatory dream, Carla and I would happily settle for one of these this holiday season:
San Francisco Ballet: A beloved favorite
The SFB Nutcracker is always a glittering, extravagant display, and the War Memorial Opera House strikes just the right balance between grandeur and intimacy. SFB seems to up the ante every year, so expect glitz and glamour. Theirs is a traditional tale with luscious costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, dreamy lighting by James F. Ingalls and the phenomenal San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. In case the performance alone isn’t enough of a treat, this year they are offering a few extra perks, like a free “Nutcracker Under the Dome” 3-D light show. Then there is the SFB Nutcracker app. For $4.99 parents can occupy their children and avoid the tedious Nutcracker ballet discussions, let the app do all the explaining.
San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band: Uniquely San Francisco
Dance-Along Nutcracker has been entertaining San Franciscans since 1985. A true labor of love, as most of their staff are volunteers. Unlike any other Nutcracker we know of, this production invites the audience to dance along with the cast, a godsend for parents with young children. In this production, Clara’s journey changes every year. She has been to Hollywood and to Outer Space, but this year she’s sticking close to home with Nutcrackers of the Caribbean, a deep sea sojourn that returns her to “The City by the Bay,” and features a trip to Alcatraz and a visit from Al Capone. Embedded in each annual iteration of the show is a vital message from its creator, Heidi Beeler, this year’s being the importance of musical education for children. Expect a lot of tomfoolery, but also grand wit and intelligence.
Smuin Ballet: Classical yet not
In its 19th year, The Christmas Ballet, Smuin Ballet’s welcome alternative to the Nutcracker, is a melding of both traditional and radical. Don’t let this year’s nickname, “XXmas,” fool you: all the dancers will be properly costumed. The “XX” refers to the company’s twentieth anniversary season. The structure of The Christmas Ballet remains the same every year, with an all-white, all-classical first act, and a second act spiced up with jazz and pizazz. Two dances are premiering this season: a piece by Robert Dekkers in the first act, set to the ethereal “Carol of the Bells” for which he has combined the sounds of both The Seattle Men’s Chorus and the Robert Shaw Chorale to create a gorgeous symphony of voice. And in the second act, Amy Seiwert (Smuin’s Choreographer-in-Residence) delights with “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” set to a remix of an original recording by Kay Starr, an American pop and jazz singer, deemed by Billy Holiday to be “the only white woman who could sing the blues.” Shannon Hurlburt will be returning to perform his signature role in The Chieftains’ “Bells of Dublin,” an audience favorite, and another famous Smuin alumnus, Roberto Cisneros, will be a guest artist in the post-Christmas performances, December 26-28.
Oakland Ballet Company: A turn-of-the-20th-century delight
Artistic Director Graham Lustig moved the setting of his Nutcracker out of the Victorian era and into the early 20th century, at a time when women were winning unprecedented new freedoms – in dress, in society, in politics. An apt backdrop for his interpretation of the dreams and aspirations of a feisty young heroine. With a smaller ensemble than most companies that mount this ballet, Lustig makes ingenious use of his young ballet students, avoiding the cloying spectacles that afflict many other productions. And Oakland Ballet boasts possibly the most splendid venue for story ballet in the entire Bay Area: the Paramount Theatre, once a legendary movie palace and one of the finest surviving examples of Art Deco design in the United States. With live music by the Oakland East Bay Symphony under the direction of Michael Morgan, this enchantingly clever production runs for only three performances on Dec. 21, 22 and 24, with a “Sweet Dreams Party” after the Saturday and Sunday matinees.
Ballet San Jose: A fresh take on the traditional
A lot of buzz around Ballet San Jose this season, thanks to the arrival of their newly minted Artistic Director, Jose Manuel Carreño, previously a heartthrob with American Ballet Theatre. This Nutcracker is the rare traditional production choreographed by a woman, Karen Gabay, former principal ballerina who retired last season. BSJ for years performed Dennis Nahat’s durable and popular version that took somewhat controversial liberties with the score and libretto, vaporizing the Kingdom of the Sweets and instead sending our hero and heroine on a pilgrimage to distant lands. Gabay yanks us back – not to the scenario most familiar to American audiences – but to E.T.A. Hoffman’s original version of the story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are), who designed sets and costumes for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker, said of Hoffman’s story,“…It meant something. It had bite and muscle, the way the Grimm fairy tales do.” Gabay’s adaptation, now in its second year, with set and costumes borrowed from American Ballet Theatre, is at once more traditional than Nahat’s, and more modern, with a feminist twist to some of the characterizations. We firmly believe that warhorses like the Nutcracker need regular overhauls, and while it’s not necessary to time-travel them (as did Mark Morris, who set his satiric Hard Nut in a surreal vision of the 1970’s), something has to be done to inject a contemporary relevance into these works, otherwise they are a very hard sell, especially to audiences as sophisticated as the Bay Area’s.