Happy 75th Anniversary!

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!

Nutcracker is onstage through December 29!


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

The Evolving Role of Clara in 75 Years of Nutcracker

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.

Lois Treadwell, Celena Cummings, Willam Christensen, Jocelyn Vollmar, Peter Nelson, and Onna White in front of SF Ballet's Van Ness studios. (© Courtesy of MPDSF)
Lois Treadwell, Celena Cummings, Willam Christensen, Jocelyn Vollmar, Peter Nelson, and Onna White in front of SF Ballet’s Van Ness studios.
(© Courtesy of MPDSF)

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.

A group of dancers from Act I of Lew Christensen's 1954 Nutcracker. (© Romaine. Photo courtesy SFMPD.)
A group of dancers from Act I of Lew Christensen’s 1954 Nutcracker. (© Romaine. Photo courtesy SFMPD.)

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.”

Angela Clark as Clara in Lew Christensen's "Nutcracker", 1975. (© Pat Quinlan. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design)
Angela Clark as Clara in Lew Christensen’s “Nutcracker”, 1975. (© Pat Quinlan. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design)

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.

Kate Lydon as Clara in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker, 1986. (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)
Kate Lydon as Clara in Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker, 1986. (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)

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.

Elizabeth Powell as Clara in Tomasson's Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson
Elizabeth Powell as Clara in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson
Natasha Sheehan as Clara in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik  Tomasson)
Natasha Sheehan as Clara in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

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

Nutcracker Close Up

“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.

 

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

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San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker.
(© Erik Tomasson) *** Local Caption *** NUT12BAK-_ETP3913

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Elizabeth Mateer and Nathaniel Remez in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

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Esteban Hernandez in Tomasson's Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson

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Samantha Bristow in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

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San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

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Photos, from top: Arabian, Elizabeth Mateer and Nathaniel Remez; Russian, Esteban Hernandez; French, Samantha Bristow. All in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. All production images: © Erik Tomasson

Helgi Tomasson’s 2004 Nutcracker

By Ben Carr

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.

Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)
Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

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.”

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

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.

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

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.

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

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. 

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

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.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik 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?’”

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

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.

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


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

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

Lew Christensen’s 1967 Nutcracker

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.

SF Ballet in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker (Photo courtesy SFMPD.)
SF Ballet in Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker (Photo courtesy SFMPD.)

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.

The Snow Kingdom from Lew Christensen's Nutcracker (© Henri McDowell. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)
The Snow Kingdom from Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker (© Henri McDowell. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)

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.

SF Ballet in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker (© Henri McDowell. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)
SF Ballet in Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker (© Henri McDowell. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)

The Spanish Dance was now performed by three couples. Chinese Tea became a romp between a man and a dancing paper dragon.

San Francisco Ballet students as the Chinese Dragon in Lew Christensen’s “Nutcracker”, 1980. (© James Armstrong. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design, San Francisco)

Four Dresden dolls replaced a shepherdess and her two lambs in the Mirliton dance.

Damara Bennett as a Mirliton in Lew Christensen's "Nutcracker" (© Henri McDowell. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design)
Damara Bennett as a Mirliton in Lew Christensen’s “Nutcracker” (© Henri McDowell. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design)

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.

Betsy Erickson as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Gary Wahl as her Cavalier in a performance of Lew Christensen's Nutcracker
Betsy Erickson as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Gary Wahl as her Cavalier in a performance of Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker


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Header image: Sketch of Robert O’Hearn’s scenic design of under the Christmas tree in Act I of Lew Christensen’s “Nutcracker”, circa 1967. (© Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design) 

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.)


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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


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