Lew Christensen’s 1954 Nutcracker

By Sheryl Flatow

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.

Roderick Drew and Roderick Gladstein in Christensen’s Nutcracker

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.

Set on stage at the War Memorial Opera House from Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker, 1955. (© Ted Streshinsky)

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.

San Francisco Ballet in costume for Act I of Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker, circa 1956-1959. (© Romaine. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design)

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.

The Nutcracker
San Francisco Ballet 1954
Gloria Cancilla as the Senorita
Richard Carter as the Matador
Roderick Drew as the Bull
Bené Arnold and Roderick Drew from the Arabian dance in Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker. (© Romaine-Skelton. Photo courtesy SFMPD.)

“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.”

Sue Loyd as the Rose with other dancers from the “Waltz of the Flowers” in Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker. (© Michael E. Bry. Photo courtesy SFMPD.)

Purchase Nutcracker tickets

Header image: Mary Tobias, Judith Ayres, Patsy Prager, Paula Opperman, Mimi Wallace, Joey Panganiban, and Shari White in Lew Christensen’s The Nutcracker. (© Romaine. Photo courtesy SFMPD.)

A Clara Reunion

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. 

Former Claras (and a Prince!) gathered at opening night of Nutcracker

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.

A group of Claras from the 1980s

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. 

A group of recent Claras

Purchase Nutcracker tickets

Header image: SF Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson

Tchaikovsky’s Dance of Death

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.

Header image: Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson

Purchase Nutcracker tickets

A Tutu Fit for a Snow Queen

Every queen needs a fabulous ensemble! Our Snow Queen’s embellished tutu is a showstopper; its layers of fabric and uniquely shaped overlay took 80 hours to make. And we have five of them! That’s a total of 400 hours spent creating one character’s costume. 

San Francisco’s first Nutcracker in 1944 was staged on a tight wartime budget that allowed just $1,000 for ALL of the costumes. The Snow Queen, Jocelyn Vollmar, made her costume herself!

Yuan Yuan Tan in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)
Yuan Yuan Tan in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson

Want another peek behind the curtain at the making of Nutcracker?

Making the Nutcracker Snow Scene

Nutcracker By the Numbers

Purchase Nutcracker tickets

Header Image: Jennifer Stahl in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson

Flowers & Bear at the Zoo and The Palace

Just days before the opening of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker, The Palace Hotel got into the spirit with a Nutcracker Tea, held in its historic Palm Court restaurant. In addition to a festive afternoon tea, families and friend met and took photos with dancers in costume as flowers from SF Ballet’s production. 

In costume for Nutcracker at The Palace Hotel’s Nutcracker Tea

On hand to enjoy some tea and sandwiches was Nutcracker Bear, who certainly made the most of the opportunity to celebrate in style before the long run of Nutcracker performances begins.

Nutcracker Bear at the Palace // Caitlin Sims
Nutcracker Bear at the Palace Hotel

Flowers and Bear also visited San Francisco Zoo, as guests at a series of “Little Learner” classes and to meet zoo attendees. Nutcracker Bear was thrilled to make friends with the chimpanzees, who seemed slightly taken aback by Nutcracker Bear’s sartorial choices. Next stop, Nutcracker!

In costume for Nutcracker at San Francisco Zoo

Purchase Nutcracker tickets

Nutcracker By the Numbers

How many pointe shoes SF Ballet goes through during Nutcracker? How tall is the Christmas tree? Click through the numbers below to explore Nutcracker by the numbers.


Pounds of fabric in the wind-up ballerina’s tutu

Lauren Parrott in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson


Soldiers (plus the Nutcracker) battle 11 mice (plus the King of the Mice)

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson


Feet to the top of the Stahlbaums’ Christmas tree after it grows

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson


Members of the Nutcracker orchestra

Martin West conducts the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra © Brandon Patoc


Pounds of snow falls (in each performance!)

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson


Pointe shoes used during Nutcracker season

Shoe maintenance // © Erik Tomasson


Hours volunteers by SF Ballet BRAVO members during each Nutcracker season

San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker Family Performance // © Chris Hardy


Free Nutcracker tickets distributed through SF Ballet’s Children’s Enchantment Fund, since 1992.

Scene from a San Francisco Ballet’s Passport Performance. (© Gary Sexton)

Want to see more behind-the-scenes stories from Nutcracker?

Nutcracker from the Wings

The Soldiers of Nutcracker

Nutcracker’s Heaviest Tutu

Making the Snow Scene

Come Celebrate Nutcracker with us!

Header Image: Scene from a San Francisco Ballet’s Passport Performance // © Gary Sexton

Nutcracker’s Ribbon Dance

The “French” variation in Helgi Tomasson’s 2004 Nutcracker is a ribbon dance trio. 

It’s not the first time that ribbons have been a part of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker. In 1954, Lew Christensen created a new Nutcracker, designed by award-winning children’s book illustrator Leonard Weisgard, that included a Ribbon Candy dance in the “Russian” variation.

Ribbon candy costume sketch for San Francisco Ballet's 1954 Nutcracker, designed by Leonard Weisgard
Ribbon candy costume sketch for San Francisco Ballet’s 1954 Nutcracker, designed by Leonard Weisgard
Virginia Johnson and students in Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker. (© Romaine. Photo courtesy SFMPD.)

The Ribbon Candy dance became a showstopper for a young Michael Smuin (pictured in rehearsal) who several years later would become SF Ballet’s co-director.

Michael Smuin rehearses Lew Christensen's Nutcracker (1959). (© San Francisco Ballet. Photo courtesy SFMPD.)
Michael Smuin rehearses Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker (1959).
(© San Francisco Ballet. Photo courtesy SFMPD.)

Purchase Nutcracker tickets

Header image: Ami Yuki in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

It’s Saber Monday!

Looking for a special holiday gift? Instead of picking out another tie or another toy, what about spending an afternoon together, sharing a magical experience that you’ll always remember? 

For “Saber Monday,” we’re offering $75 tickets for Orchestra and Dress Circle seating for the 12/12 (11 am), 12/13 (2 pm) & 12/18 (11 am) shows. These special matinees are a wonderful way to share the joy of Nutcracker with friends and family. Join us for an enchanted afternoon, won’t you?

To purchase tickets, click the button below and enter promo code MOUSEKING. Then select December 12 at 11 AM, December 13 at 2 PM, or December 18 at 11 AM. 

Hurry! This offer expires at midnight!

Save on Saber Monday

Header image: SF Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson