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The Loveliest Nutcracker

For us ballet diehards, the annual “Nutcracker” marathon performs double duty, filling companies’ coffers for the “real” season, and giving rising talents a chance to step out as one of those myriad Sugar Plum Fairies in a mid-run matinee.


San Francisco Ballet: “Nutcracker”


War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, December 10-29, 2016


Rachel Howard

Jennifer Stahl in Helgi Tomasson's “Nutcracker.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

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In San Francisco, we have one of the world’s dramaturgically richest “Nutcrackers,” opulently set in 1915, with a preteen Clara dreaming of visions she’s seen at that year’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition; the final pas de deux is danced by the Nutcracker prince and a magically grown-up Clara (with the help of a mirrored wardrobe, a ballerina takes the girl’s place). It’s a kid-pleasing “Nutcracker” that still manages to offer three female roles and one male role suitable for testing principal-level chops. On the evening of Saturday December 17th, soloist Sasha De Sola whirled through as the Sugar Plum Fairy. By Monday, San Francisco Ballet announced that artistic director Helgi Tomasson had promoted her.

I have my guesses as to why this performance convinced Tomasson to make De Sola principal. Of medium height, with exquisite feet and legs, a broad ribcage, and a large blonde-crowned head, De Sola has—pretty much since joining as an apprentice in 2006—stood out as a powerful technician with a touch of vulgarity in her commanding confidence. She is one of my all-time favorite Myrthas in “Giselle;” she was made to be the icy queen. But the gracious softness required of a versatile principal does not come naturally to her.

De Sola found that gentleness amidst the complicated series of chaîné and piqué turns required of this production’s Sugar Plum Fairy, a character Tomasson assigns to lead the Waltz of the Flowers. She still used a very sharp attack, and there was still something Suzanne Farellesque in her self-contained presence. But the smile seemed to convey real sweetness, and the way she would lean her upper body into an arabesque before changing direction suggested benevolence. She was still a queen, more than a fairy. But a kind one. I hope to see her take on Balanchine’s “Diamonds” during the regular season.

In the meantime, I caught two performances of this year’s “Nutcracker,” slightly preferring Jennifer Stahl as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Tomasson’s technically overpacked choreography, full of fussy switches in foot positions, does not lend itself to waltzing. But Stahl, who has a small head atop a glam Ginger Rogers body, found the musicality in her gorgeously arced upper back, easy shoulders, and ever-flowing ports de bras. San Francisco Ballet is obscenely blessed with principal-caliber soloists right now.

Add to the list Julia Rowe. A three-year member of the company promoted to soloist just last season, she got to try out the production-capping Grand Pas de Deux on the afternoon of the 17th, and she was the most delectable interpreter of it I’ve yet seen. More sturdy than delicate, Rowe is miniature, but dances supersized. And beyond her space-devouring energy and fearless projection, what makes her dazzle is irrepressible musicality. Her variation as the magically-grown-up Clara was a masterclass in rubato, with Rowe ever so teasingly drawing her leg from arabesque into retire, and pulling time like taffy through slow, perfectly controlled attitude turns.

Her Nutcracker Prince was the newly hired Italian soloist Angelo Greco, a mop-top Maserati of a danseur. Short, well-muscled, and well turned-out, he stood exactly Rowe’s height when she was en pointe, and he sailed through air-hanging jumps and soft landings in his variation, delivered beautifully controlled his grande pirouettes in the finale, then got swept away by the adrenaline and tumbled past his knee to the floor while landing his final tour for the exit. It was all done with unflappable joy and charm. I hope these two firecrackers will be paired often in seasons to come.

Sasha De Sola and artists of San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's “Nutcracker.” Photograph by Erik Tomasson

The evening casting in the Grand Pas was similarly high-octane, though slightly less musically nuanced. It was fascinating to compare Joseph Walsh’s partnering style as the Nutcracker Prince against Greco’s. Walsh has swagger, and he’s not afraid to use a bit of force in the way he pushes a ballerina into the final turn of her pirouette or ejects her from a shoulder-sit; there’s a glint in his eye as though he’s thinking, “Let’s put this ballerina into fifth gear and see what she can really do.” Solid Frances Chung was his magically-grown-up Clara, and she caught a five-second arabesque balance that made the night special.

The other principal-level role in this “Nutcracker” is the Snow Queen. Walsh’s wife, soloist Lauren Strongin, imbued it with her delicate lines and fail-proof fouettes during the matinee, while Lorena Feijoo was tense and less than crystalline in the evening.

In 2004, when this “Nutcracker” replaced the Pepto-Bismol hued production that had served San Francisco since the mid-80s, the sublimity of the new snow scene made me cry. This year, childlike fantasy stirred me most, from the charm of the dancing bear who emerges from “Madame Cirque’s” (Mother Ginger’s) tent to the perfect avuncular sweetness captured in the two Drosselmeyers I saw, Ricardo Bustamante and Pascal Molat. I don’t know if it’s civic pride or the lure of historical trivia that compels me to note that San Francisco Ballet was the first company in the U.S. to dance a full “Nutcracker,” beating Balanchine to it by a decade. But I know it’s sheer gratitude to artistic director Helgi Tomasson that makes me claim this as the loveliest “Nutcracker” I can imagine.

Rachel Howard

Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.



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