Sometimes it's hard to feel the Christmas spirit when the sun never stops shining, the leaves stay green, and only the briefest glazings of frost edge the blades of grass in the park. Theatrical interventions abound in the Bay Area with Nutcrackers of various ilk, from Jewish to drag to dance-along Caribbean, but if you want the real traditional deal, settle in a plush velvet seat in the War Memorial Opera House and treat yourself to the one danced by America's most venerable ballet company.
San Francisco Ballet has graced their stage with the Nutcracker longer than anyone else in the nation, premiering a version choreographed by William Christensen on Christmas Eve 1944. This was replaced by current SFB artistic director Helgi Tomasson's production 60 years later, which transplants the ballet based on the Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E. T. A. Hoffmann -- about a girl who rescues a boy from the curse of a rodent queen -- to a painted lady house on the trolley-lined streets of San Francisco.
The presentation emphasizes spectacle and illusion, the flats by Michael Yeargan swooping up and away, the fun-house mirror over the mantelpiece bringing the Victorian houses and the steep slope into the interior of the Stahlbaum's opulent parlor. Beginning with the mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer tinkering with mechanical toys in his clock shop, Act I has him pulling all kinds of tricks from up his sleeve at the Stahlbaum's Christmas party -- the standard swath of multicolored handkerchiefs (passed off to the maid), the floating cane (you can see the strings), and then the most exciting presents of all in the form of giant gift boxes that appear empty but come alive with dancing dolls to the delight of the assembled children.
The boxes recur throughout the production, reappearing as the magic lamp from which a glitter-crusted Arabian genie emerges, the Faberge eggs that explode with leaping Russian Cossacks, and finally the gazebo-shaped box that transforms the child Clara into a gleaming princess to dance the grand pas de deux with the Nutcracker Prince.
Tomasson's choreography is frequently uninspired, drags through excessively long, mimed sequences -- or worse, set changes -- that would be better occupied with dance, and relies on visual tricks like the pink ribbons hysterically flourished by the trio of cancan dancers representing France in Act II. Certain choices seem questionable, such as replacing Clara's usually heroic act of killing the Mouse King with a well-aimed toss of her slipper with a slapstick maneuver with a giant mousetrap, or giving the Nutcracker Prince an overenthusiastic ginger-whiskered mask more suited to a purveyor of fried chicken than a boy cruelly changed into the suffering figure of an anthropomorphized kitchen appliance. It may be telling that the most exhilarating part of the show, the Russian divertissement, danced with panache by Esteban Hernandez, Edson Barbosa, and Aaron Renteria, was choreographed by Anatole Vilzak.
In Tuesday's matinee performance, Koto Ishihara was a glistening Snow Queen, evoking both the lacy delicacy and bright precision of an ice crystal through the cloudy visibility of an almost comically heavy-handed avalanche of paper snow. Julia Rowe was a majestic though chilly Sugar Plum Fairy, here presiding over a veritable apiary of butterflies, ladybugs, and dragonflies, danced by students of the San Francisco Ballet School, in a set evoking the Conservatory of Flowers rather than the standard Kingdom of the Sweets. Lorena Feijoo appeared as a vision from a Russian imperial past in the grand pas with Vitor Luiz, whose jumps were beautiful, soft, and elastic. Best of all is the bear (Max Cauthorn) that lumbers out from beneath the skirt of Madame du Cirque, whose absurd animal antics will beguile even the Scrooges and Grinches in the audience.
San Francisco Ballet presents The Nutcracker through December 29 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. Tickets are $20-$300; sfballet.org.