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Behind The Nutcracker 

Wednesday, Dec 23 2015
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In 1944, the San Francisco Ballet debuted the first-ever American production of The Nutcracker, which has enchanted children and dazzled audiences every year since. While we focus on the spritely spirits waltzing across the stage, there is more to the holiday tradition than those dancers.

It takes the right balance of time-honored ritual and novel surprise to create the perennial magic of a holiday classic like The Nutcracker.

"There's a certain stableness about it," said the Ballet's Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, whose production debuted in December 2004. "[And yet] it never feels the same. No performance feels the same as the night before."

That sentiment is true from all perspectives, whether you're directing the movement of the music from beneath the dancers' feet or fluffing their tutus as they prepare to leave the wings.

Head of Women's Wardrobe Patti Fitzpatrick has seen the Ballet through three productions (including the original Christensen Brothers version) and over 30 years of Nutcracker performances. When Tomasson overhauled the production in 2004 — setting the famous party scene in San Francisco during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition — it came with a new set of costumes.

"The costumes we use now are the same set [from 2004]," Fitzpatrick said. That set includes over 175 costumes, not accounting for duplicates, which are often necessary when the principals change from one night to the next. "There may be as many as nine pairs of Snow Queens and Kings and only four sets of costumes," Fitzpatrick said. "Those costumes have to fit a lot of bodies."

When an old costume is retired — a size medium Snow Queen, say — a new one is brought in. But with a custom-built tutu running between $7,000-$8,000, costume care is key. "Last year, we had some new ones made. This year, I'm resurrecting some old ones," Fitzpatrick said. "If we don't have the same fabric, we shop it as close as possible and dye it to match."

A tutu can last up to 30 years if it's well cared for, but most begin to show wear in half that time. Every fall, Fitzpatrick and her team spend a couple months examining the costumes to see which are in need of significant maintenance, spot-cleaning and mending items on a daily basis as needed. Not having the dancers don their costumes until tech rehearsal helps to extend their lifespan, as 30-some performances occur in barely more than two weeks.

While Fitzpatrick is offstage fitting costumes and fixing braids, Music Director & Principal Conductor Martin West is under the stage leading the four dozen members of the Ballet's pit orchestra. Now in his 11th season with the Ballet, West has conducted for the entirety of the Tomasson Nutcracker production.

Much like the Fitzpatrick and her costumes, West tries not to overdo it when it comes to rehearsing his musicians. "Everyone knows it so well that we approach it a different way," West said. "It's like putting on old slippers."

After 20 years in the job, West has conducted somewhere between 300 and 400 Nutcracker performances. "One of my horn players [Keith Green] has a running tally," West said. "He did his 800th performance last year."

Whereas a new piece of music might require substantial preparation, West keeps Nutcracker practice at a minimum, not bothering to bring in the orchestra until the tech and dress rehearsals.

Even after a decade of Tomasson Nutcrackers, both West and Fitzpatrick still sense excitement in each performance.

"Each [Nutcracker] has its own charms, but this one by far has the best battle of all time," he said, claiming to have "one of the happiest orchestras I've ever come across." Coupled with an amazing score, West finds no difficulty in keeping things fresh. "It's not even a challenge to get into the pit, time after time," he said.

According to Tomasson, "[The Nutcracker] should be and is magical."

For Fitzpatrick, part of that magic happens the day of the tech rehearsal. "It's a complete transformation when they actually put [the costumes] on and you see them on stage under the lights," she said.

Although Fitzpatrick works during most of the performances, she's still able to take the occasional peek.

"Once it's up and running, I always go and watch it from the back of the house," she said.

She is especially fond of the Doll and the Sugar Plum Fairy. "Each Sugar Plum does it a little bit differently when she dances with the flowers," she said. "That part just warms your heart."

Occasionally, Fitzpatrick will get a visit from dancers of Nutcrackers past, many of whom bring their children and reminisce about their experience. "It's really fun to be a part of," said Fitzpatrick. "If you can't actually be out there performing, it's sure nice to be back stage."

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A. K. Carroll

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