On the 75th anniversary of that first Nutcracker, the enduring beauty of the snow scene—then and now!
The first production of Willam Christensen’s 1944 Nutcracker was recorded for the Standard Hour television show in 1952 and offers a bird’s-eye perspective on the snow scene of America’s first complete Nutcracker.
And now, we leap ahead to the current day. The beautiful blizzard that takes place in Helgi Tomasson’s current production of Nutcracker was filmed from the wings, capturing both the joy of movement—and a lot of snow!
Thank you for counting down to the 75th anniversary of Nutcracker with us! We’ve given away 75 pairs of tickets to this season’s performances, plus books, and multiple event tickets.
We’ve loved reading about your Nutcracker memories as dancers and audience members, your pre-performance traditions, your favorite holiday drinks, your captions to Nutcracker images, and your retellings of the Nutcracker story in emojis.
Happy holidays from all of us at San Francisco Ballet!
She’s got a pesky younger brother, she’s brave in a battle, and she’s awe-struck by the Sugarplum Fairy. And yet beyond these universal characteristics, the character of Clara has changed and evolved several times over the 75 years since San Francisco Ballet performed America’s first complete Nutcracker in 1944.
The first Clara in Willam Christensen’s 1944 production of Nutcracker was Lois Treadwell, an adult who was a soloist with San Francisco Ballet. She danced on pointe as Clara and performed in the Mirliton variation in Act 2.
Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker premiered in 1954. In this version, Clara was danced by a child. The opening night Clara in the new production was Suki Schorer, who went on to have a long career at New York City Ballet. She has been an esteemed member of the faculty of School of American Ballet for more than 50 years.
Lew Christensen created a third Nutcracker in 1967. In 1985, student Angela Clark was the first African-American Clara at San Francisco Ballet. “At first, I was a little frightened because I didn’t know how people would accept it,” the then 15-year-old told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I was afraid there would be a lot of talk. But now I’m used to the role and find it a worthwhile experience. It’s a great feeling to know you are the first. You feel you have to do your best.”
San Francisco Ballet’s next new Nutcracker production premiered in 1986. Kate Lydon, one of the Claras from this production, went on to dance with SF Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and to direct the ABT Studio Company.
Helgi Tomasson premiered a fifth Nutcracker in 2004. At the current time, there are two former Claras who are dancers with San Francisco Ballet: Soloist Elizabeth Powell and Corps de Ballet member Natasha Sheehan.
“Costumes have to tell you in a moment what that person is feeling, what they’re going through—what changes are happening,” said Costume Designer Martin Pakledinaz, when accepting a Tony Award for his designs for Broadway’s Thoroughly Modern Millie. Pakledinaz designed the costumes for Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker in 2004, and added beautiful detail to each garment. Why trouble with something that may never get noticed? Even if the audience can’t see the details, the costumes help a new set of dancers get into character each year. Below are close-up details from Nutcracker costumes, followed by dancers wearing them onstage.
Magical is how Tomasson describes his vision for this new Nutcracker, an idea he took into planning sessions with set designer Michael Yeargan, and costume and lighting designers Martin Pakledinaz and James Ingalls. “I wanted a production that not only transports children, but also adults into a realm of the magical and the fantastical,” he says.
Tomasson decided that the best place to set his production was early 20th-century San Francisco. Not only would that make the production unique, but it would also be a tribute to the city. “The first American production of Nutcracker was staged by San Francisco Ballet in 1944 so it seemed fitting to place it here,” the choreographer says.
From the beginning of the planning process, when Helgi Tomasson chose a creative team of set, costume, and lighting designers, he knew that he wanted this production to be one that San Francisco audiences would identify with. “Placing the production in Germany no longer worked for me,” he says. “For this city, the people who live in San Francisco, there is no identification with mid-nineteenth century Germany. That’s an old European idea.”
Tomasson and his creative team had strong ideas about the first act of Nutcracker. Conducting historical research on San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, Yeargan was able to recreate a street scene approaching the Stahlbaums’ house, “with wonderful Victorian steps leading up to the front door, wreaths and candles in the windows,” he says.
Even the Stahlbaums’ stylized drawing room with its Victorian staircase and huge bay window in the back was based on photographs and books published during the time period.
With new choreography and scenery, 172 costumes, a cast of more than 73 company members and 91 School students, this Nutcracker is the largest production that San Francisco Ballet has ever undertaken.
Tomasson’s other source of inspiration for his Nutcracker was the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, and San Francisco’s re-emergence post-earthquake. The pavilions at the Exposition, full of exotic exhibits and people from all over the world and the international dances of Act II connected for Tomasson.
For Tomasson, the idea of a Clara transported to “Sugarland” as he calls past productions of Act II, never worked for him. “No one seems to know where Sugarland is,” he says, laughing. “Why can’t Clara imagine that her fantasy is taking place in her own city in one of those incredible pavilions?
“Looking at photographs of the Exposition, it must have been incredible,” says Tomasson. “I thought, ‘Why not use the concept of the beautiful international pavilions—in a loose way, of course—to suggest the time period in Act II?’”
One of the last issues that Tomasson tackled was the ending of Nutcracker. In the Company’s past productions, the ballet ends with Clara and the Nutcracker Prince flying away in a golden swan boat. In this new production, Tomasson felt strongly about creating a greater sense of resolution—having the ballet return to the Stahlbaum’s home, where the audience discovers Clara just awakened in the drawing room, and it’s Christmas morning.
Lew Christensen was working on yet another production of Nutcracker at the time of his death in 1984, and had already chosen Jose Varona as his designer. Helgi Tomasson, who was named artistic director in 1985, went ahead with Christensen’s plans, unveiling the company’s fourth production of Nutcracker in 1986.
Varona set the first act in Germany in the 1830s, the Biedermeier period. Beginning with the prologue, which looked like a vintage postcard, the designs established a strong sense of time and place. The tree was grander, and the 170 gorgeous costumes were filled with intricate details that added texture to the production. The Kingdom of Sweets was truly a child’s fantasy land.
The production featured much of Lew Christensen’s choreography, but there were also contributions from Willam Christensen and Helgi Tomasson. “There are little changes all through the production,” says Tomasson. “One big change is that Willam used his own party scene in the first act.” It was expanded to include more children; in fact, the population of the whole ballet grew considerably.
Tomasson added some lovely touches throughout the production, and completely redid a few of the second act variations. “Lew did not want a dragon in the Chinese dance any more,” Tomasson said. “So I had to come up with something else and rechoreograph.”
The Ribbon Dance was replaced by the traditional Trepak, choreographed by Anatole Vilzak, who taught at San Francisco Ballet School for many years and performed with the Mariinsky Theater. “I spoke to Gisella [Christensen] about the changes,” says Tomasson. “She said, ‘Lew wanted changes. Now it’s up to you to make them work.’”
When he staged a new Nutcracker in 1967, Lew Christensen retained much of his choreography from the 1954 production. Robert O’Hearn designed the sets and costumes, which were more realistic, elegant, and opulent than the two previous productions. Many of the 250 silk, satin, and velvet costumes had jewels, and the tree sparkled with twinkling lights as it grew.
The design that inspired the most lavish praise was the stunning snow scene, which O’Hearn described as “in the style of a nineteenth century engraving.” As snow began to fall, two transparent scrims, painted with snow-covered trees, moved across the stage in opposite directions. Clara and the Nutcracker entered and wandered behind the scrims, which moved off to reveal a winter wonderland of forest.
This production opened with a new prologue. The battle between the mice and toy soldiers was more impressively staged, and some of the divertissement were again revamped.
The Spanish Dance was now performed by three couples. Chinese Tea became a romp between a man and a dancing paper dragon.
Four Dresden dolls replaced a shepherdess and her two lambs in the Mirliton dance.
More dancers were added to the Waltz of the Flowers. And for the first time, Clara and the Prince flew out of the Candy Kingdom.
Ten years after Willam Christensen’s Nutcracker premiered, Lew choreographed a new production set in Victorian America in the 1850s. Leonard Weisgard, a children’s book illustrator, designed the scenery and costumes.
“This production was more childlike than Bill’s,” says Nancy Johnson, former administrative director of San Francisco Ballet School and the first Sugar Plum Fairy in the 1954 production. “It had a storybook feeling. The costumes for the children and the mothers in the first act looked like they belonged on paper dolls. Even the tree looked like it was out of a children’s book rather than like a real tree.” The tree appeared flat as it grew, rather than three-dimensional. The audience was nevertheless enthralled.
Most of the costumes were spare looking: free of decoration, and geometrical in design. The geometric motif was carried through to the set, which featured an elaborate Candy Kingdom dominated by candy cane arches and a gingerbread house.
It was clear from the opening moments that this was a completely reconsidered Nutcracker. The ballet now began in Drossemeyer’s workshop, where the character of the nephew—who later became the Nutcracker Prince—was introduced. Clara was performed by a youngster, and no longer danced on pointe. A Dancing Bear was added to the first act party scene, and toy soldiers replaced the gingerbread men.
The second act included the traditional Russian mime scene in which the Nutcracker Prince relate the story of his battle with the Mouse King, and Christensen choreographed all new divertissements for the inhabitants of the Candy Kingdom. Among the highlights were the Dance of the Chocolate Spaniards and the Licorice Bull, performed by a torero, senorita, and toro; the Disappearance of the Turkish Delight, a magic trick similar to the usual Arabian dance, in which a sultry woman vanishes before the audience’s eyes; and the Ribbon Candy Dance, an athletic dance performed by a soloist as he (or she) manipulated long ribbons.
“Lew was usually working with dancers on their way up—he was always losing dances to New York back then—and he used his choreography as a teaching tool,” says Johnson. “What’s amazing is how sophisticated and difficult the dances are for the Snowflakes and Flowers. We tend to think that young students today have more facility. But these dancers are as much of a challenge now as they were in the 1950s.”
On opening night of Nutcracker, the lobby was filled with a happy group; hugging and reminiscing while clad in identical diagonal silk sashes. It was a reunion of current and former SF Ballet School students, all of whom had played the role of Clara in Nutcracker, from 1972 to 2018.
Dancers discussed their experiences in the ballet and what it had meant to them and shared stories of friendships that have endured decades after dancing together in Nutcracker.
Immediately before the performance, SF Ballet Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale recognized the role that these student performers have played in the production. She asked all the former Claras to stand, and the audience cheered once again for these talented performers.
The King of the Mice, the Nutcracker, and the Sugarplum Fairy await! These drawings, by Francis Zhou, reference Martin Pakledinaz’ costumes for Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker. Click on the image for a printable version!
In 1890, Tchaikovsky was riding the high of his opera The Queen of Spades when disaster struck: his longtime patron and confidante, Nadezhda von Meck, confessed that she could no longer sponsor his work. “I suffer a great deal,” Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother following the news. “Is it wise to accept the offer … to compose an opera in one act and a ballet [The Nutcracker] for the season 1891–92? My brain is empty; I have not the least pleasure in work.”
However reluctantly, Tchaikovsky accepted the Imperial Theater’s commission and began work on The Nutcracker. But when his beloved sister Alexandra died shortly after, disappointment turned into despondency: “For God’s sake … Today, even more than yesterday, I feel the absolute impossibility of depicting in music the “Sugarplum Fairy,” he wrote.
Should it come by surprise, then, that The Nutcracker’s Grand Pas music, which comes just before the Sugar Plum Fairy’s famous variation, sounds so melancholic? For this section, choreographer Marius Petipa had asked for “an adagio intended to produce a colossal impression,” and Tchaikovsky delivered. But more than making a “colossal” impact, he offers a moment of musical pathos; the cascading, six-note theme suggests something more intimate than the duet at hand. Was Tchaikovsky writing a “requiem” to his departed little sister, or simply setting the stage for the prince and princess the way he knew best? It may be one of music’s—and ballet’s—greatest mysteries.