Did you know that the American tradition of the Nutcracker originated in San Francisco? It’s a story that the Museum of Performance + Design is proud to preserve and share through a series of artist papers, photo collections, design renderings, and models. The beginning of the story takes us back to the 1940s, when the War Memorial Opera House was almost always empty during the month of December. As a result, SF Ballet’s first director, Willam Christensen, saw this as a golden opportunity to produce an annual Christmas Ballet Festival. However, for the inaugural Festival in 1943, Willam didn’t immediately think of Nutcracker and instead created the ballet Hansel and Gretel.
The following year, however, influenced by members of the city’s large Russian community, Willam began reviving Tchaikovsky’s beloved fairy tale ballet and presented the first American full-length production of The Nutcracker. Famed dancer Alexandra Danilova and choreographer George Balanchine, who had danced in productions of The Nutcracker in Russia and happened to pass through San Francisco with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, consulted with Willam. Balanchine was adamant that Christensen should not bother reviving the original 1892 Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov choreography and instead create his own!
SF Ballet's 1944 production of The Nutcracker featured costumes by Russell Hartley and sets by Antonio Sotomayor. Russell Hartley (1922-1983) was a dancer with the Company who was trained as an artist and art conservator and incidentally, was soon to found the Museum of Performance + Design (then called the San Francisco Performing Arts Archives). His partner in crime on this production was Bolivian-born Antonio Sotomayor (1902-1985), one of San Francisco’s most versatile and popular artists and Russell’s teacher at the California School of Fine Arts. In 1944, war-time economies and restrictions were a challenge: Hartley was given a budget of $1,000 for 143 costumes!
When The Nutcracker opened on December 12, 1944, Willam Christensen didn’t suspect it would become an American tradition. In fact, The Nutcracker didn’t return to the Opera House stage the following year—SF audiences had to wait until 1949 to see it again. The Nutcracker has been performed in the city and all over the US every year since! In the 1949 revival, Willam collaborated with his young brother Lew on the choreography: Willam provided the pas d’action in Act 1, while Lew choreographed Act 2.
In this first production of The Nutcracker, Russell Hartley also created the role of Mother Buffoon, designing and constructing his own costume. Mother Buffoon’s over-sized skirt housed eight tiny buffonettes and the character has served as the model for all succeeding productions. After Mr. Hartley stopped dancing, he returned to SF Ballet to perform this role, appearing in three different variations of the costumes. The rest of the cast included Gisella Caccialanza as Sugar Plum Fairy, Willam Christensen as the Cavalier, and nineteen-year-old Jocelyn Vollmar as the Snow Queen partnered by Joaquim Felsch.