The 1986 Christensen/Tomasson Nutcracker

by Sheryl Flatow

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.

San Francisco Ballet in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker. (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)
San Francisco Ballet in Christensen and Tomasson’s 1986 Nutcracker. (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)

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.

Set model for the Land of Sweets sequences for Christensen and Tomasson’s 1986 Nutcracker

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.

SF Ballet in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)
SF Ballet in Christensen and Tomasson’s 1986 Nutcracker (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)

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.”

Julian Montaner in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker (© Marty Sohl. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design, San Francisco)
Julian Montaner in Christensen and Tomasson’s 1986 Nutcracker (© Marty Sohl. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design, San Francisco)

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.’”

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Gregory Russell, Andre Reyes, and Christopher Anderson as Russian Cossacks in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker, 1986. (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)
Gregory Russell, Andre Reyes, and Christopher Anderson as Russian Cossacks in Christensen and Tomasson’s 1986 Nutcracker, 1986. (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)


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Header image: Design sketch for Christensen and Tomasson’s Nutcracker, circa 1986

The Rodent Royalty of Nutcracker

What’s a fairy tale without a bad guy? In Nutcracker, the King of the Mice fills that role, with just enough menace to keep it interesting, and just enough style (and humor) that he’s not completely unsympathetic.

In E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “Nutcracker and Mouse King,” the seven-headed Mouse King is the son of Madam Mouserink, who herself has an extensive backstory. The ballet is based on (less scary) adaptation of Hoffman’s story by Alexander Dumas.

San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker has featured several stylings of Mice Kings since the 1944 premiere. The only image that remains of the original Mouse King, created at the end of WWII, is Russell Hartley’s costume sketch.

Mouse King costume design for San Francisco Ballet's 1944 Nutcracker, designed by Russel Hartley // Courtesy of SF Museum of Performance + Design
Mouse King costume design for
San Francisco Ballet’s 1944 Nutcracker, designed by Russel Hartley // Courtesy of SF Museum of Performance + Design

San Francisco Ballet’s 1954 production of Nutcracker was designed by children’s book illustrator Leonard Weisgard, and the mice are correspondingly cuter and more benign in the design sketches, but remain quote warlike in the promotional image.

Costume Sketch for San Francisco Ballet’s 1954 production of
The Nutcracker by
Leonard Weisgard // Courtesy of SF Museum of Performance + Design
Mice and Toy Soldiers in Lew Christensen’s 1954 Nutcracker // © San Francisco Ballet. Photo courtesy SF Museum of Performance + Design

The 1967 Nutcracker, designed by Robert O’Hearn, gave the Mouse King military medals and a sash, pointy ears, and the girth of a seasoned general.

Michael Smuin with San Francisco Ballet dancers in costume as the Mouse King and Mouse subject from Lew Christensen’s “Nutcracker”, circa 1979 // © Kaz Tsuruta. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design

The 1986 Nutcracker, with designs by Jose Varona, cast the Mouse King as more of an outlaw, with the eye patch of a pirate and boots that curled at the toe.

The Mouse King in San Francisco Ballet's 1986 Nutcracker
The Mouse King in San Francisco Ballet’s 1986 Nutcracker

San Francisco Ballet’s current production, with costumes designed by Martin Pakledinaz, features a stylish King of the Mice, complete with purple jacket with (faux) ermine trim, furry legs, and very large teeth.

John-Paul Simoens in Tomasson's Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson
John-Paul Simoens in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson


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

Who is Tchaikovsky?

Even at the age of six, Tchaikovsky loved music so much that he was prepared to bleed for it—literally. He practiced piano every chance he got, and when he couldn’t, he would tap out the music he had made up in his head on the house’s windowpanes. One time, he tapped so hard that he broke the window glass, cutting himself badly. But Tchaikovsky could not be lured away from the music.

Composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Born in Kamsko-Votinsk, Russia on May 7, 1840, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a bright child; he could read Russian, French, and German by the time he was six. After attending boarding school, he studied law and mathematics and got a job as a clerk working in the Ministry of Justice. But after four years, he quit to follow his original love: music. Soon after he began going to music school full-time and studying composition, he was invited to teach classes.

The beautiful music that Tchaikovsky would create over the next 25 years made him one of the most popular of all the Russian composers. His works include nine operas, six symphonies, four concertos, three string quartets, and numerous songs, suites, and overtures. Yet, it is for his ballet scores that he is most remembered. Tchaikovsky may have only written three ballets, but they are the three most famous ballets of all time: Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty.

SF Ballet in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Erik Tomasson

The iconic score for Nutcracker was composed in bits and pieces as Tchaikovsky traveled across France and the United States in 1891, and orchestrated from January to March of the following year. Tchaikovsky was a fan of the Nutcracker story originally penned by E.T.A. Hoffmann, but not as enthusiastic about the Candyland setting of the ballet that Marius Petipa had choreographed. It was hard for him to compose around it. Still, Tchaikovsky worked through this setback and the final Nutcracker score is a masterpiece that continues to be appreciated by audiences today just as enthusiastically as when it was first introduced.

Less than a year after the premiere of this ballet, Tchaikovsky died unexpectedly. He was only 53, and had just completed his sixth symphony, which he felt was the best piece of music he ever created.

Talking Props with the Prop Master

Ken Ryan, master of properties at SF Ballet, explains that for an art form without spoken word, like ballet, props are not just window dressing, but instead vital to the storytelling. We asked him about the many props in Tomasson’s Nutcracker.

What constitutes a prop here at SF Ballet?

Ken Ryan: At SF Ballet, a prop is anything a dancer handles, including some furniture. In Nutcracker for example, props range widely in scale and material: from the snow and the Fabergé eggs that the Russians jump out of, to the small Christmas tree the boys carry in Prologue and all of Drosselmeyer’s “party” tricks.

Hansuke Yamamoto in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)
Hansuke Yamamoto in the Russian variation in Tomasson’s Nutcracker.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Tell us about your favorite Nutcracker props:

KR: Well, of course there’s the snow.  Each snowflake (paper confetti) is about the size of a piece of paper from a hole punch. In total, I have 36 20-gallon garbage cans full of “snow” and each year we purchase about 150 pounds to replace what we’ve lost the previous year.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in the snow scene in Tomasson’s Nutcracker.
(© Erik Tomasson)

There’s also a prop that you may not notice—the photos above the fireplace in the Party scene. It’s actually of the Christensen brothers—the founders of SF Ballet—as children with their parents and as adults. I thought it was important for all of us to have a constant reminder of how this world-class ballet company got started. I smile to myself every time I see it.

SF Ballet School student as Daisy Greene at the end of the party scene in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. Above her is the photograph of the Christensen brothers //© Erik Tomasson


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