Your Ultimate Guide to Nutcracker
The Quintessential Holiday Classic, SF Ballet Style
What Is It? The quintessential holiday classic, Nutcracker is the first thing most people think about when they think about ballet. And with good reason: ever since its first performance in the United States (right here in San Francisco in 1944!), it’s been the most performed ballet in the country. The ballet about Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the valiant Nutcracker Prince is a beloved American holiday tradition.
Who It’s For? Everyone.
What Will I See? So the story begins a long time ago but not very far away . . .
PROLOGUE: DROSSELMEYER’S TOY SHOP
The Plot: The ballet opens in San Francisco on a foggy Christmas Eve in 1915, the same year the city hosted the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. We meet Drosselmeyer, a (magical) toy- and clockmaker who’s doing a pretty good business for 5 pm on December 24.
What Should I Look For? Look for typical SF architecture (there are 100 Victorian painted windows on the painted ladies) and the interactions between passersby in the 1915 street scene.
ACT 1, SCENE 1: THE STAHLBAUM HOME
The Plot: A holiday party is about to start, hosted by the Stahlbaum family: Dr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum, their son, Fritz, and their daughter, Clara. After lighting the tree (with electric lights, a novelty in 1915), the children and adults dance, then pass around gifts. Clara is invited by her father to dance with the grown-ups for the first time. Drosselmeyer shows up—he’s not just a toymaker, but also Clara’s godfather. He puts on a magic show for the kids, complete with dancing dolls, after which he gives Clara a nutcracker doll. She’s thrilled by this odd little man-doll and dances around the room with it until her kid brother grabs it and breaks it. Uncle Dross manages to “heal” the toy by tying a handkerchief around it and gives it back to Clara. Eventually, it gets late and everyone heads home.
What Should I Look For? Watch the gifts the children receive—some of the toys and gifts will reappear (much larger) later in the ballet. And note the moment when Clara joins the parents’ dance: this is a sign that she’s growing up, a theme that will be explored throughout the rest of the ballet.
ACT 1, SCENE 2: THE BATTLE SCENE
The Plot: Clara can’t sleep without her nutcracker, so she leaves the comfort of her own bed to visit the darkened living room. She falls asleep on the couch holding her nutcracker and dreams about the toys from the party. Uncle Drosselmeyer appears and (truly) mends the nutcracker. Clara awakens and realizes her whole house is growing around her. The Nutcracker comes to life to defend Clara against a herd of now-giant mice. He summons an army of toy soldiers and a battle ensues. Clara realizes that if the mice are giant, the mouse trap probably is too, and comes to the Nutcracker’s aid. But slightly too late. The Nutcracker collapses. Clara begs Uncle Drosselmeyer for help, and he transforms the fallen Nutcracker into a Prince.
What Should I Look For? The tree. Choreographer George Balanchine said that Nutcracker is really all about the tree, and it is a spectacular moment. Also, the King of the Mice has furry legs, a swagger, and a flair for the dramatic. See if you can spot him having a cheese snack in the middle of the battle!
ACT 1, SCENE 3: THE SNOW SCENE
The Plot: The Prince is grateful for Clara’s help and offers to take her on an adventure. First, they travel through the Land of Snow, where they’re greeted and then sent on their way by the King and Queen of the Snow.
What Should I Look For? The snow! SF Ballet’s Nutcracker has an incredible amount of snow dropped onstage, and yes, it’s an extra challenge to dance in. But also look for the ways the steps themselves and the dancers’ formations on stage resemble snowflakes. This is the first time we get to see the full corps de ballet dance, and it’s an opportunity to really see what SF Ballet’s dancers are able to do.
ACT 2: THE CRYSTAL PALACE
The Plot: The Prince and Clara arrive at the Crystal Palace—which looks quite a bit like San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers—and are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Prince recounts his tale in mime and the Sugar Plum Fairy commands all her subjects to dance, including visitors from Arabia, France, China, Russia, and Spain, and a waltzing garden of flowers. Then Drosselmeyer and the Sugar Plum Fairy transform Clara into a (grown-up) ballerina, so she can at last have a celebratory dance with her Prince.
And then Clara wakes up, back at home on the couch. It’s Christmas morning, and she runs back up the stairs into the waiting arms of her mother—a tender, touching end to this beloved story.
What Should I Look For? So much dancing! In SF Ballet’s version, the Sugar Plum Fairy dances in the Waltz of the Flowers. Like the piece of hard, sugar candy that gives the Sugar Plum Fairy her name, her movement is joyous, crisp, and intricate. And look for the grand pas de deux, performed by a grown-up Clara and her Prince. They’ll dance together, then separately (listen for the iconic celeste music in Clara’s solo!), and then together again. They should be stately, regal, and just a touch melancholic. Growing up is bittersweet, after all.
Nutcracker returns to the War Memorial Opera House this season! Catch the holiday classic from December 10–30, 2021. Tickets go on sale early fall 2021.
Header Image: San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Nutcracker // © Erik Tomasson