America's First Nutcracker

Although the Nutcracker is more than 100 years old, the American holiday tradition of Nutcracker performances started here in San Francisco in 1944. San Francisco Ballet Director Willam Christensen, wanting to fill an opera house that was dark in the month of December, wrote to the Library of Congress for a copy of the complete Tchaikovsky score. The original production had premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in December 1892—to decidedly mixed reviews. An abridged version had been danced in the United States by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1940, but Christensen wanted to create the first complete production of Nutcracker in America.

When the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured to San Francisco, Christensen invited dancer Alexandra Danilova and ballet master George Balanchine to dinner at his apartment. Both had danced in Nutcracker as children in Russia. “Balanchine described the Mariinsky production: how the big doors opened on the tree, the mime of Drosselmeyer, all the details,” recalls Christensen. "At one point, Danilova started dancing Clara’s variation, in her stocking feet and street dress. Balanchine put an end to that with his admonishment, ‘No, no, Alexandra, don't try to show him the actual steps. Let him create his own choreography.’ We worked all night, and that is how I got my first Nutcracker.

Design for SF Ballet's 1944 Nutcracker by Antonio Sotomayor

SF Ballet’s 1944 premiere, with set design by artist Antonio Sotomayor and costumes by Russell Hartley, had a $1,000 budget. Because of wartime rationing, company members stood in long lines to purchase costume fabric in the allocated 10-yard lengths. Five dollars bought all the necessary artificial flowers, feathers, and rhinestone necklaces from Goodwill. The company also purchased velvet stage curtains from what had been The Cort Theater in San Francisco (where ballerina Anna Pavlova had danced her last San Francisco seasons) and fashioned them into soldiers’ uniforms for Act 1.

Gisella Caccialanza Christensen, the first American Sugar Plum Fairy, danced with SF Ballet while her husband, Lew Christensen, served in the army. “Onna White helped me make my costume, which was really awful,” she remembers. “We made our own tights then too. We had to sew our stockings onto little pants and, like old-style tights, they’d bag out and wouldn't bounce back and cling to your legs. You couldn’t practice plies or anything before a performance or else you’d be standing there with baggy knees when the curtain came up. The zipper on my costume split while I was dancing in the dress rehearsal of Nutcracker. I remember Willam saying to me, ‘Good luck, sis, and don't breathe!’”

Christensen’s 1944 Nutcracker played to delighted audiences and enthusiastic critics. It was not yet an annual December tradition—Nutcracker didn’t return to the Opera House until 1949, a revival for which Willam Christensen collaborated with his brother Lew on the choreography. San Francisco Ballet has since presented Nutcracker every winter, with new productions in 1954 and 1967 as well as Helgi Tomasson’s current production, which debuted in 2004. Hundreds of American ballet companies large and small now present their own take on Nutcracker each year, a beloved tradition that celebrates the magic of the holidays and a child’s dream.

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