History Brought to Life: Nutcracker & The Panama-Pacific International Exposition

SF Ballet’s Nutcracker brings history to life. The ballet is set in 1915, the year the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) was held in San Francisco. The PPIE, a World’s Fair, celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal, and with it, a new age of technology and global mobility. The Exposition was a remarkable feat. Considered a “city within a city,” the fair included 11 exhibition palaces, 21 foreign pavilions, 48 state buildings, and a 65-acre amusement zone. The Palace of Fine Arts still stands today as a reminder of this seminal event in the city’s history.

SF Ballet’s Nutcracker features memorable moments inspired by the Exposition itself. In 2004, when Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson was re-conceiving the ballet, he found inspiration from the Exposition and decided to use the concept of “one of those beautiful pavilions” from the Exposition as a backdrop for Act II. Tomasson’s most recent Nutcracker production evokes the early 1900s, including Clara’s iconic Victorian home set in the Pacific Heights neighborhood, the toys received by the children at the Christmas Eve party, and the magical journey she takes in Act II.

Act II opens in a scene inspired by San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers, complete with dancing ladybugs, dragonflies, butterflies, and the Sugarplum Fairy. Built in 1879, the Conservatory welcomed visitors to the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition and is the oldest glass greenhouse in the United States.

The Exposition had a number of international pavilions that represented various countries around the world which can be seen reflected in the various international dances in Act II. For each divertissement, Scenic Designer Michael Yeargan created scenery that reflects the international flavor of the choreography. Clara is entertained by dancers from Spain, France, China, Russia, and beyond. Drosselmeyer leads Clara, along with the audience, on a journey on which she watches a series of astonishing tour-de-force dances by characters from around the globe—likely suggested by the sights she saw for the first time at the Exposition.

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