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Not so great

San Francisco's Nutcracker on PBS
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  December 2, 2008

SWEET AND CHILDREN-FRIENDLY: But this San Francisco Nutcracker should be more.

Way back in 1977, PBS's Great Performances: Dance in America series and American Ballet Theatre gave us a Nutcracker with a difference: Mikhail Baryshnikov as an electrifying Nutcracker/Cavalier and willowy Gelsey Kirkland as an older-than-usual Clara who in her second-act dream became the Sugar Plum Fairy and danced in romantic ecstasy with her hero. It all dissolved in that confusing way dreams do, and what was one to think at the end, when Kirkland, awake and back home, pressed her nose to the window and watched the snow fall? But the production was a brave attempt to make Tchaikovsky's 1893 ballet the hard nut that it sometimes is in the original story (German Romantic E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 novella) as well as a holiday bonbon.

Television and film have brought us few such efforts since. Carroll Ballard's 1986 Nutcracker: The Motion Picture had Pacific Northwest Ballet dancing to sets by Maurice Sendak, but they hardly registered on screen. Mark Morris's The Hard Nut (!), for PBS in 1993, spoofed '50s and '60s America and threw in a sly pas deux for Droßelmeier and his Nutcracker nephew. (Tchaikovsky at the end of his life was besotted with his nephew.) That same year, the holiday film George Balanchine's The Nutcracker freighted Darci Kistler and Damian Woetzel and the rest of New York City Ballet with a wooden Macaulay Culkin as Droßelmeier's nephew.

This year, PBS is bringing us the new San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker (airs on WGBH a week from Wednesday, December 17, at 8 pm). The conceit is that the production is set during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, a world's fair in which San Francisco heralded its triumphant recovery from the devastating 1906 earthquake. The TV presentation is hosted by Olympic figure-skating gold medalist and Dancing with the Stars idol Kristi Yamaguchi, who recalls how her mother took her to the San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker when she was a little girl. At the end of the show, there's a short segment on the Exposition, whose Palace of Horticulture had a dome bigger than St. Peter's. The tinted postcards make it all look fabulous; you wish you could go.

If only this Nutcracker were as enticing. It's similar to Boston Ballet's (BB artistic director Mikko Nissinen was a principal dancer at SFB for nine years), and most of the comparisons go in Boston Ballet's favor. The San Francisco Droßelmeiers live in a Victorian with a big curving staircase, and yes, it's great to see Fritz slide down the banister. But the production is sweet and bland and children-friendly to a fault (pretty much what Yamaguchi advertised), and most of the principal dancing — Snow King (Pierre-François Vilanoba) and Queen (Yuan Yuan Tan), "Sugar Plum" (Vanessa Zahorian, actually dancing the Waltz of the Flowers), "Adult Clara" (Maria Kochetkova) and her Nutcracker (Davit Karapetyan) — is skating-exhibition level. For the second act, Yamaguchi promises a surprise: Clara will dance with her Nutcracker Prince. That sounds like good news: the beaming, mischievous Elizabeth Powell has been the best thing about the ballet. But then we get her "adult version" in Kochetkova, who's far from "dazzling" (as the SFB publicity blurb describes her). The most exciting dancing comes from Karapetyan, who combines ballon with bravura; Boston Ballet would be lucky to have him.

Apart from the nifty red dragon that snakes through Chinese, the second-act divertissements — which include a magic lamp in Arabian and three ribbon-twirling burlesque girls as Shepherdesses — are as empty as the replica of the Palace of Horticulture in which they're set. And there's nothing in San Francisco to compare with Boston Ballet's Grandmother having a "senior moment" during the Polonaise, or the four mice's parody of Swan Lake's "Dance of the Cygnets," or Jared Redick's one-to-each-compass-point turning quartet of split jumps in Russian, or the difficulty of the straight-line choreography for Sugar Plum at the end of the Grand Pas de Deux. Even the Boston children do harder stuff. It makes you wonder why Boston Ballet's Nutcracker isn't part of Great Performances. Is there a corporate sponsor in the house?

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