SAN FRANCISCO — “Welcome to ClaraCon!” says Kelly Tweeddale, the new director of the San Francisco Ballet.
It’s the opening night of the company’s annual production of “Nutcracker,” and Tweeddale is standing in the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House, surrounded by former dancers and other “Nutcracker” cast members from years past—including at least 25 former child actor-dancers who have portrayed the role of the main heroine.
In the ballet production, Clara is taken on a fantastical journey through the realms of the story, with a Sugar Plum Fairy, Snow Queen, Mouse King, gargantuan Mother Ginger with her circus tent dress and the titular Nutcracker Prince.
The former Claras here, gathered for a special occasion, say that even years later, they still consider performing in this production a magical time in their lives. The special occasion is the 75th anniversary of the first production of the ballet performed in the U.S.—which took place in, of all places, San Francisco.
Elise Gillum, one of the sash-wearing Claras gathered in the opera house lobby for a pre-performance toast, still remembers her debut in her role in 2009.
“I was over-the-moon excited,” Gillum says. “I wasn’t really scared because I was just happy to be involved in the production. It was one of the most magical parts of my life, for sure. When we did the final bow, it was this crazy, roaring applause, and the opera house is so gorgeous. It’s an incredible moment.”
You don’t have to be a ballet aficionado to know “Nutcracker” story and music. It’s bonded with the holiday season. The music, scored by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is a staple around Christmastime. But it wasn’t always so.
E.T.A. Hoffman first wrote the dark fairytale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” in 1816. The story everyone knows was adapted by Alexandre Dumas in 1844. Tchaikovsky’s ballet debuted in Russia in 1892—and flopped, at least at first. The first taste of his music from the ballet made its way to the States in 1940, not in a theater production, but in Disney’s “Fantasia.” Four years later, SF Ballet debuted the full production. The company was just 11 years old at the time.
Fast-forward 75 years, and SF Ballet, now on its fifth unique production of “Nutcracker,” which takes place in one of the city’s famed Painted Ladies Victorians in 1915, is the country’s preeminent company to stage the ballet each year, with direction by Helgi Tomasson and design by Tony-winning artists Michael Yeargan and Martin Pakledinaz.
The highly technical production includes a blockbuster scene where the entire room grows exponentially in mere seconds, with a Christmas tree threatening to bust through the ceiling of the opera house itself, a “Dance of the Snowflakes” that takes place in a snow flurry, dancers literally bursting out of Fabergé eggs and all the skilled dancing and storytelling one could want from a world-class theater production of any kind.
Kate Griffeath, who performed as Clara for three years in the early ‘70s, credits much of the early success of ballet dancers in the the Bay Area to her teacher, acclaimed ballerina Ruby Asquith Christensen, who, along with her husband, Harold, and brother-in-law, Lew, was responsible for the dance style’s rise in popularity in America in the 1930s.
“She was a prima ballerina. She was a great toe dancer and a great toe teacher,” Griffeath recalls. “I studied with her in Marin. One day she asked me if I wanted to be in the San Francisco Ballet performance of ‘The Nutcracker.’”
Griffeath wasn’t a San Francisco Ballet School student at the time but would go on to become the company’s first Clara to not originally come from the ballet school—thanks to Christensen’s sway—after first playing other childrens’ roles in the ballet.
The influence of Lew Christensen on the 1970s productions of “Nutcracker;” a photo essay.
Previously unpublished photos taken by June Carr. Courtesy of former SF Ballet dancer Kate Griffeath. Click an image to start.
“After dancing in ‘The Nutcracker’ for a few years, I decided to come to San Francisco Ballet, and I studied here for many years. So, with this event, I feel really grateful that I got to study with the Christensens.”
Tweeddale took over the SF Ballet in September, just as the cast’s rehearsals for “Nutcracker” picked up. After moving over from the Vancouver, B.C. Symphony Orchestra (she’s also led the Seattle Opera), she had just 90 days to get up to speed before the premiere.
“It’s amazing to come on the 75th anniversary, when there’s so much tradition and history,” she says, before pointing out the ticketholders now streaming into the lobby and how many of them brought their young children, most of whom seem visibly excited about “Nutcracker.”
The grandiose nature of the production—the wow factor—is there for sure. More than 600 pounds of glittering fake snow is used during each performance, which requires six stagehands to deploy from the top of the stage. The set pieces are fantastic and sure to strike the heartstrings of San Francisco history lovers. There are more than 300 costumes, including the ballerina doll’s 18-pound tutu, Drosselmeyer’s $11,000 coat and the Snow Queen’s tutu, which has 500 Swarovski crystals and took 80 hours to construct by hand. More than 160 students from San Francisco Ballet School are slated to perform in various roles, as well as most full dancers in the company.
Gillum, who grew up in San Jose, auditioned for the ballet school when she was 13 and played the role of Clara in 2009 and 2010. She traveled from Pittsburgh, Penn. to make the 75th season premiere.
“I loved how artistic ballet is, as well as being disciplined and structured,” says Gillum, who has also performed with the Pittsburgh Ballet, the Grand Rapids Ballet, and is now a teacher. “I think there’s a lot of elements of more scientific things like physics and math and patterns in ballet. It’s a big culmination of artistic aspects and other things as well.”
Tchaikovsky’s iconic music is another draw. Even those who may not have read the “Nutcracker” story or seen the ballet are familiar with the likes of “Trepak” (“Russian Dance”), “Waltz of the Flowers,” “March,” “Dance of the Mirlitons” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
From “Home Alone” to “Tetris” and “The Simpsons,” the music has been inescapable.
“The music is really key,” Griffeath says. “You hear it everywhere. It’s all over the place, and there are so many ways that it’s choreographed.”
Added Gillum: “There’s something really special about live performance, because it’s different every time. It’s better to experience the ballet with a live orchestra. And then there are those human aspects, like mistakes or incredible technical feats—the ballerina could just hold her balance for another eight counts. That’s something that you’ll only see in person.”
While the terrific production on opening night was a momentous occasion for Tweeddale, she was already looking ahead to the next three weeks. Between opening night and Dec. 29, the company will perform the ballet 31 times in all.
“This is performance one of 31,” she says. “The hard part is our dancers having the stamina. This is a marathon.”
As red and white balloons floated down from the ceiling to celebrate the season’s premiere, the family of 13-year-old Abby Cannon, that evening’s show’s Clara, greeted her backstage. Cannon, one of four Claras in this season, has been rehearsing for hours daily since September, her mother chauffeuring her to and from practices. She’s been dancing ballet since she was 4, and the Dec. 11 performance marked a crowning achievement.
“Celebrate, I guess,” she says, giggling.
But not too much, because her next performance is just two days later.