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Team Spirit

Packing 31 performances into just over two weeks, San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” season is a grueling marathon for the corps dancers, and at the same time a field of opportunity for rising talents. This year the scouting was particularly interesting because the company’s new artistic director, Tamara Rojo, has let the principal ranks thin out during her last hiring round, taking in only new corps members. Consequently, upstarts had more chances at the star roles requiring topmost technical chops. I caught three shows and walked out of the gilt War Memorial Opera House encouraged by both the nearly sold-out crowds in the seats, and by the caliber of the debuts on stage.


San Francisco Ballet: “The Nutcracker” 


War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, December 17 and 21, 2023


Rachel Howard

Julia Rowe in “The Nutcracker” by Helgi Tomasson. Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

The biggest “arrival moment” I caught was Carmela Mayo’s debut as the Sugarplum Fairy, even though in this “Nutcracker” production, choreographed in 2004 by former artistic director Helgi Tomasson, the Sugarplum Fairy is, well, not the most plum assignment. 

To gush for just a moment: I actually love Tomasson’s “Nutcracker” more than any other production I’ve seen. The setting—1915 San Francisco—is both nostalgic and elegant; the costumes by Martin Pakledinaz are tastefully dazzling; and the dramaturgy—an approximately 13-year-old Clara magically turns into an adult version of herself to dance the final pas de deux—is seamless. The only serious weak passage is the Waltz of the Flowers (the high point of so many other “Nutcrackers”!), and it’s in this turgid waltz that the Sugarplum Fairy has her moment, whizzing through in pique and chaine turns, and trying to make the most of fussily technical phrases. Of the dozens of dancers I have seen in this role, only Nikisha Fogo has so merged speed and style as to make it truly thrilling. But if Mayo didn’t manage the same miracle, she nevertheless glowed. 

Nikisha Fogo and Aaron Robison in Helgi Tomasson's “Nutcracker.’ Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

Now entering her sixth year in the corps, Mayo is a small dancer with clean lines who projects strength and calm confidence. Her chaîne turn runs could use perhaps gain dynamism from more sense of attack, but she jumped high and turned fast (and what a lovely Italian fouetté). Her standout moment, though, came earlier, when the Nutcracker Prince delivered his mime passage to tell her all that had transpired in the Act One battle with the Mouse King. Mayo reacted with the exaggerated worry and gracious relief required to make Sugarplum a character, not just a dance role. It will be exciting to watch her develop in the spring season. I also saw soloist Katherine Barkman as Sugarplum, in a performance notable for the luscious stylings of her neck and head, and principal Wona Park, whose go at the role this year seemed surprisingly slow for a whiz-bang technician; perhaps guest conductor David LaMarche was taking the tempo too leisurely that day.

The Snow Scene is a real stunner in this production. At the same matinee that Mayo danced, amidst the 150 pounds of whirling white confetti, first-year corps member Jihyun Choi made an amazingly assured Snow Queen debut with a big effortless side developpé, squeaky clean fouetté turns, and sparkling eyes. Earlier in the week, soloist Norika Matsuyama left vivid memories with her clarity of projection opposite Snow King Joshua Jack Price, a compact corps dancer who has always possessed impressive control and fluidity (what a romp he had two seasons ago in William Forsythe’s “Blake Works I”) and has now improved dramatically in partnering.

San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's “Nutcracker.” Photograph by Reneff-Olson Productions

The grand pas de deux Tomasson crafted to crown this “Nutcracker” amply rewards balletomanes who sit through the party scene pleasantries for the umpteenth time in order to see what that day’s cast can really do. After the magically grown-up Clara steps out of her jewelry box/transformation chamber, she gets to fly into shoulder-sits and plunge into fish-dives, and play teasingly with rubato to the famous “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” celesta solo. Soloist Jasmine Jimison, the company’s new “it” girl after her success in both “Giselle” and “Romeo and Juliet” last season, made her Grand Pas debut into a vision of long, soft arms; her Nutcracker Prince, corps member Mingxuan Wang, was also winningly gentle, quite surprising given his muscularity, with landings soft as a cat.

But the dancer I really wanted to see as the Nutcracker Prince was soloist Cavan Conley, and I caught his second-ever performance in the role. How can you not have a soft spot for a guy whose face beams delight and surprise at his partner’s every move? (I’ve said it before but at times I feel Conley missed his calling as a Mark Morris dancer; his irrepressible expressiveness verges on camp.) Could he hack the bravura technique? His sissones were giant, his tours clean, the landings soft, and his jeté elancé scythed the air. Only when he reached the grandes pirouttes could you see him fighting to pull it all off—and who doesn’t enjoy rooting for a talent this sweet? 

Conley’s partner as the grown-up Clara was Frances Chung, one of the company’s most rock-solid principals (and certainly the female dancer with the most unfailing turnout). What an opportunity for him to partner her and learn the craft from one of the best. If Chung seemed to be teaching him by trial, she also seemed to thoroughly enjoy herself, particularly in a time-bending arabesque balance. As the company heads into one of its most ambitious seasons ever, the principal roster is lean but mighty, and team spirit seems to be running high through all the ranks. 

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.


Burl Willes

Brava, Rachel! Thank you so much for this excellent review. Great to have a
Fjord writer who is so familiar with our fine San Francisco Ballet dancers.


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