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San Francisco Ballet's "Nutcracker" is a magical show with beautiful sets and costumes. There's nothing contrived about it, and it projects the celebration of the season in a free flowing family gathering. The old German town is blanketed in snow on Christmas Eve. People are in the street and an old man with a pushcart gives toys to children. The Stahlbaum house is a big ballroom with crystal chandeliers. We're greeted with the "Children's' Dance." It's stunning in it's precision, while letting the kids be kids enough to bring out the special things that make them so charismatic. They draw you into their fun with that freedom of expression that hasn't been squeezed out of them yet.

San Francisco Ballet staged the first "Nutcracker" in the U.S. in 1944. The original choreography was done by Lew Christensen, with additional choreography by William Christensen and Helgi Tomasson. One of the things that sets this one apart are the crowd scenes. Often they are chaotic with people milling around, at best not really doing anything, at worst getting in the way. In this one, the groups are all ordered. They move with purpose, and everywhere they move is where they're supposed to be. Helgi Tomasson is a master of this and the importance of moving these large groups can't be overstated. San Francisco Ballet is as good as anyone with this.

Drosselmeyer enters the celebration to the bass strings. The owl on the Grandfather Clock in the background flaps his wings and lights blink in his eyes. When one of the big presents is opened, a dancing Doll jumps out. When then next one is opened, Fritz runs in and Drosselmeyer drags him out, and turns him kicking, upside down. A Bear then comes out of the package and does a pas de deux with the Doll.

Clara comes to the front of the stage and looks around. A rat scurries across the stage behind her, then back. The house lifts away, the Christmas tree grows to about triple size, and the giant Rats do battle with the Toy Soldiers. The Soldiers are deliciously wooden and the big gray Rats are as ugly as can be. When the Rat King is stabbed, he draws his sword, waves it, falls, and flops around in a bit of truly melodramatic comedy.

Multi-layered scrims of woods swirl with snow. Drosselmeyer, in a Swan Sled carries Clara and The Nutcracker Prince through a Winter Wonderland scene. Sarah van Patten and Chidozie Nzerim, the Snow Queen and King do a beautiful Pas de Deux. They do dramatic lifts and splits amongst the light, airy snowflakes. She does an elegant number, tracing little circles on her left leg with her right foot, while she floats in circles around the stage. The Land of Sweets in Act 2 is bright, gaudy pastel colors of predominantly pink and blue, with bells, bees, and flowers hanging from the ceiling. Twelve little girls dance on point. The groups turn out, then in, and The Sugar Plum Fairy appears. I haven't seen Tina LeBlanc perform in almost two years, and she is still magical. She has been a principal at San Francisco Ballet since 1992, and I saw her with The Joffrey Ballet before that. She endures and seems to lose nothing. I love Diana Vishneva, Darcy Bussell, and Nina Ananiashiveli, but if I could only watch one ballerina for the rest of my life, it would be Tina LeBlanc hands down. Nobody has more fun dancing, than Tina, and she projects it so effortlessly. There's a precision and elegance in her phrasing that I have never seen with such consistency. I have never seen her have anything resembling an off night. Tina LeBlanc is so smooth and perfect. It seems like dance is her primary form of movement, like she danced before she walked. In the Pas de Deux she's partnered with Guennadi Nedvigine. They do a spectacular high lift, she steps into her turns, explodes out of them, spins offstage, then comes back for the thrilling fouettes. In this tremendous production, LeBlanc stole the show.

The character dances were all excellent. Mother Ginger was especially fun for me, since she wasn't included in ABT's "Nutcracker," which is the one I have seen for the last two years. The Butterfly and Flowers were another highlight. The Flowers were all in pastel colors with perfect interaction, like finely cut diamonds. Vanessa Zahorian was flawlessly athletic as the Butterfly. She seems lighter than air as she turns, spins, jumps high and lands with remarkably light footfalls. She's springy and smooth, with legs like rubbery steel. Zahorian is young, and she could turn into something very special.

The production was a delicious spectacle with a lot of fun, no pretensions or gimmicks. It was surpassed only by the cast of dancers. Sara Jobin led the orchestra in this enchanting production of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" with The San Francisco Ballet. It continues through December 28.

San Francisco Ballet Website

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