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The Tired Nut 

The last days of San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker as we know it

Wednesday, Dec 18 2002
It costs $1.5 million for 2 1/2 weeks of work for about 170 people, and it depends on fat bags, hats that look like wet dogs, weird harnesses, and 100 pounds of scrap paper in pieces slightly bigger than confetti. Day in and day out, the same clothes are worn by scores of different people, each of whom leaves behind rank yellow perspiration stains after laboring under bright, sweltering lights. Late into the day, a woman with a kindly face obsessively worries over the washing. Some of the workers sport ugly shoes dyed blunt reds and blues, although none of the shoes necessarily fits and most look like they came from the Salvation Army. (They did.) Eight men repeatedly sweep a large rectangular area with janitors' brooms. Finally, in a big pit, 60 people toil nightly for 2 1/2 hours surrounded by blaring noise. Somehow, they don't go deaf.

If it sounds like the latest construction project using Willie Brown's creative labor strategies or a posthumous drama by Samuel Beckett, it's not. It's San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker at the War Memorial Opera House, which has been running without stop since 1944, its gritty behind-the-scenes reality as mesmerizing as its naive magic onstage.

Nutcracker is the ballet bauble first instituted in San Francisco after Willam Christensen, who with his brothers put S.F. Ballet on the map, pulled every memory he could from the Russian dancers Alexandra Danilova and the great George Balanchine one fabled day in his living room in the city. The surreal tale of a little girl, a Nutcracker doll, and a weird godfather first produced in Russia in 1892 is now the cash cow of every major ballet company in the country, and has, more than any other full-length dance work, become a measure of the zeitgeist.

"I think it still appeals to people's sense of innocence, tradition, and ritual, especially in these times," explains the Ballet's executive director, Glenn McCoy. "It's a beautiful, beautiful production." He's not wrong. The snow scene, for example, with its diaphanous panels of snow-covered trees that glide across the stage, bathed in silvery-blue light and accompanied by Tchaikovsky's lush score, is one of those heart-stopping moments in the theater.

But beautiful is not all Nutcracker is. When Mark Morris' satiric The Hard Nut, with its alcoholic partyers and drug-popping hostess, hit the S.F. stage a decade ago, big, classical dance narrative caught up with complicated 20th-century reality, projecting the radical fantasy of a world where boys can be girls and girls can be boys, all without major surgery. San Francisco Ballet's Nutcracker, by contrast, has been an haut bourgeois mirror of the past decade and a half of prosperity, with minimal nods to social change. Last week's opening parlor scene, designed 16 years ago by renowned opera designer Jose Varona, was the same happy pink it has been for years, filled with the same cloying children dressed in Biedermeier finery. But it all looks different now that the Ballet has announced the production is going to be overhauled. It suggests the end of an era, one filled with reflexive nostalgia for a secure world, where we have control over a nighttime realm of danger and dreams. Now we all know the world's not secure; the danger has leaked into the daylit hours.

With work on the future production soon to begin, the Ballet plans to launch a new Nutcracker in 2004, although how modern, and how changed, it will be we won't know for a while. According to McCoy, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson is in negotiations with a design team now, the results to be made public at the end of the month. Meanwhile, Drosselmeyer, the Oedipally complex godfather whose makeup takes two hours to apply, will keep wearing a hat that looks skinned from a big, wet FAO Schwarz wolf. His tired boots, shared by most of the Drosselmeyers, have a mysterious slash of red along the heels, which mixes an air of menace with the character's sweetness. Across his gut is a network of cheesy-looking watch fobs, and on his coat are tacky stuffed-animal eyes made of plastic, rather than real buttons. "They're meant to be eyes," swears Patti Fitzpatrick, costume supervisor, who lovingly oversees the blow-drying of tutus and the hand washing of costume parts.

The Ballet won't go the route of parody already claimed by Morris -- that niche, says McCoy, is already filled. Nor is it Tomasson's style. "We want to do something fresh, but we also want to honor tradition and people's memories," he says. He adds that the Ballet hopes to appeal to a new audience, wanting it "to be a Nutcracker for San Francisco." Exactly which San Francisco he doesn't say.

"The production is beloved," says McCoy. "But productions get old; the actual physical assets get tired, and you can only refurbish so many times. You need to take a fresh look." Down in the basement of the Opera House, Fitzpatrick shows me how threadbare things have gotten. The tutus are dissolving from years of heat and sweat. "Look," she says, "it's like shower curtain material. It peels." The fat bags that make skinny dancers appear rotund are truly slouchy now, while the costumes of the Dresden doll are worn-out despite new bows and bodices. Even Mother Ginger's skirt, which weighs 60 pounds and has to be applied from below with the help of four dressers, shows signs of deterioration, looking like a 1960s kids' playhouse with a scrapbook of junk glued to the outside. Things fall apart, and, to paraphrase Yeats, the ceremony of innocence may be drowning; fortunately for many of us, Nutcracker, threadbare or new, keeps going.

About The Author

Ann Murphy


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