Lew Christensen's Nutcracker has entertained audiences for nearly half a century. (Left: Tracy Kai Maier as the Rose in the San Francisco Ballet performances of Nutcracker. Photo by Marty Sohl)
The Christensen's association with the Nutcracker ballet is historic. America's first performance of the complete Nutcracker was staged by Willam Christensen and the San Francisco Ballet in 1944. During the early years of San Francisco Ballet's existence as an independent organization, the company faced stiff competition from the Opera and Symphony for use of the War Memorial Opera House stage. The facilities, however, were almost always available during the Christmas holidays. Willam Christensen, the company's artistic director, saw this as an opportunity to present an annual holiday ballet festival where a new fairytale ballet would be staged each year. Willam's first production was Hansel and Gretel, presented in 1943. For the second season, Willam chose to stage the complete Nutcracker.
Although Willam had choreographed excerpts from the Nutcracker as early as 1935, the complete Nutcracker had never before been staged in America. Materials for the new ballet were difficult to find. A printed score of the Tchaikovsky music was unavailable and special copies had to be photographically reproduced from the Library of Congress in Washington. Procuring sets and costumes was also a problem. Because of the economic restriction imposed by the war, the company's production budget was severely limited. "One thousand dollars was the budget for the 143 costumes," recalled Russell Hartley, costume designer for the first production of the Nutcracker, "which had to include all of the material, the execution of the costumes, and my salary. The Cort Theatre, where Anna Pavlova had danced her last San Francisco season, had just been demolished and the stage curtains had found their way to the Goodwill store. I was able to purchase all of them for ten dollars. They provided the material for the red velvet coats worn by the guests in Act One, as well as providing the Company with a source of red velvet for the next ten years." The prominent San Francisco artist Antonio Sotomayor designed the sets.
San Francisco Ballet's first performance of the Nutcracker took place on December 24, 1944 with Gisella Caccialanza dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Willam Christensen as the Cavalier. Two performances were given at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House followed by three additional performances in Oakland, Stockton, and Sacramento. Merrill Osenbaugh, arts critic for the Sacramento Union, attended the premier performance and prophetically wrote: "We can't understand why a vehicle of such fantastic beauty and originality could be produced in Europe in 1892 with signal success and never be produced in its entirety in this country until 1944. Perhaps choreographers will make up for lost time from now on." (Left: Celina Cummings as the Snow Queen in San Francisco Ballet's first performances of the Nutcracker (1944). Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum)
In 1951 Lew Christensen joined Willam as co-director of San Francisco Ballet and the two brothers mounted a new production of the Nutcracker for the Christmas season. Lew provided new choreography for the "Waltz of the Snowflakes" and "Waltz of the Flowers," movements which are considered two of Christensen's finest choreographic sequences.
In 1954, after succeeding his brother Willam as Artistic Director, Christensen re-choreographed the entire ballet, setting the opening scene in the Victorian style of the mid-nineteenth century. For these performances, Leon Kalimos, the company's general manager made the bold decision to schedule eight performances of the new ballet, an unheard of number at the time, and to limit the performances to San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. The Opera House staff viewed Kalimos's idea as folly and predicted financial disaster. To their surprise, all eight performances quickly sold out.
The success of the Nutcracker in San Francisco did not go unnoticed by other companies. Christensen's compatriots, George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein had attended the San Francisco Ballet performances the previous year and quickly realized the benefits of presenting the Nutcracker as an annual holiday event. In 1954 New York City Ballet premiered its own production of the Hoffmann tale.
In 1967, to celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the original Marinsky Theatre performances, Christensen choreographed an entirely new production of the Nutcracker. For this production Christensen collaborated with New York designer Robert O'Hearn to create, as Christensen recalled, "a full-length fairy tale ballet simple in plot and lavish in presentation." The new Nutcracker opened on December 12, 1967 with guest artists Melissa Hayden and Jacques d'Amboise dancing the principal roles. Fourteen performances of the new production were given in San Francisco followed by five performances in Los Angeles. Critics acclaimed the 1967 production which was billed as "the most lavish ballet spectacle ever produced on the West Coast." Christensen's principal triumphs were the "Dance of the Snowflakes" and the "Waltz of the Flowers" which the San Francisco Chronicle praised as "alive with energy and imagination enough to make the Bolshoi's snowflakes melt in comparison." Robert O'Hearn's lavish designs were equally praised as "a vision of beautifully blended colors, exquisitely executed." San Francisco Chronicle dance critic Heuwell Tircuit wrote of the new production: "In sheer beauty, sumptuous flair and elegance of concept, it is in a class by itself." (Left: Betsy Erickson and Jim Sohm as the Snow Queen and King. Photo by Lloyd Englert)
The 1967 production of the Nutcracker was the most widely performed ballet from the San Francisco Ballet repertory, seen by more than a quarter of a million audience members. Christensen's choreography attracted the attention of other companies as well. In 1975 the production was staged by Pacific Northwest Ballet and in 1978, Violette Verdy approached Christensen about setting the production on the Paris Opera Ballet. (Left: Julian Montaner as Chinese Tea and right: Val Caniparoli as the Mouse King. Photos by Lloyd Englert)
In 1983, after 16 years in performance, Christensen began plans for extensive revisions of the production's sets and costumes. In the spring of 1984 Christensen again collaborated with designer Jose Verona who had brought to San Francisco the fanciful sets and costumes for Beauty and the Beast. For the new Nutcracker, Varona retained the elegant, early nineteenth century setting of the Act One party scene and the dreamlike designs of the Land of the Snow but made extensive revisions to the second act, transforming it into a wonderland of candy treats. Varona described the new designs as a "traditional Nutcracker, oriented toward children, to awaken them to theatrical magic, to show what children in other ages used to have. Their dreams may have seemed naive, but quite enchanting."
During the year Christensen conferred with Varona as work on the new scenery and costumes progressed. Tragically, however, Christensen passed away in the fall of 1984 before the new production reached the stage. Christensen's widow, Gisella Caccialanza, tapped Christensen's older brother Willam, with whom Christensen had collaborated in 1951, to assume the responsibility of bringing the new production to the stage.
For the next two years Willam Christensen worked with Varona, lighting designer David Elliott, technical director Richard Carter, and the San Francisco Ballet staff to prepare the production for its scheduled 1986 premier. Portions of Act One were carefully reworked by Willam to comply with his brother's wishes. Willam reintroduced the original Russian Trepak which Christensen had long talked about restoring. The traditional Cossack choreography was carefully reconstructed by San Francisco Ballet School's venerable Anatole Vilzak, a 1915 graduate of the St. Petersburg Imperial Ballet Academy. Helgi Tomasson, recently appointed artistic director, choreographed a new Chinese variation for the production. Designer Sandra Woodall, who had collaborated on several Christensen ballets, was engaged to construct the more than 170 new costumes. (Left: Jose Varona's design for the 1986 production of Nutcracker. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum)
The new production opened on December 12, 1986 to wide critical acclaim. "A spectacularly colorful, warm, inventive, eminently cheerful production," wrote the San Francisco Examiner, "one that seeks and sustains an eternal note of innocence." (Left: Tracy Kai Maier in Waltz of the Flowers. Photo by Lloyd Englert)
The new scenic designs were equally praised by Alan Ulrich, dance critic for the San Francisco Examiner:
"Jose Varona has given this Nutcracker a personality of its very own. No revisionism for Verona: He has used everything but gaslight to suggest the early decades of the 19th century when the fantasies of children ran to such innocent pleasures as strawberry shortcake."
"Varona's designs radiate almost as much charm as they do grandeur. His eye for detail, much of it drawn from illustrations in children's books of the post-Napoleonic era, scores repeatedly."
"A draftsman of extraordinary wit...The production breathes enchantment."
Lew Christensen's Nutcracker has been performed annually by San Francisco Ballet for nearly half a century and has been seen by more than half a million audience members at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. Christensen's Nutcracker has been aired on national television and portions of the choreography have been performed world-wide as part of San Francisco Ballet's historic State Department tours.
The Nutcracker, first staged in America by Willam Christensen as a modest holiday presentation, has today become an annual tradition performed by over 150 ballet companies across the country making it the most widely seen ballet in the dance repertory.
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