Bay Area Dancers Weigh In on 'The Nutcracker' and the Holiday Dance Season

San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band's 2015 edition of Dance-Along Nutcracker. (Photo: Billy Green)

Bothered and bewildered this holiday season? Prepare to be bewitched. Shun the malls, boycott the online retailers and defy the military-industrial e-commerce complex -- it's time to fortify yourself and any dispirited friends with the power of dance.


Start with the oft-maligned yet enduring Nutcracker – whose Tchaikovsky score was rapturously received in 1892 St. Petersburg, though the dance itself was met with derision. Decades later, the United States -- a nation much younger than Russia and with few traditions of its own -- would embrace and mold the spectacle into a profoundly American secular ritual, one that reflected its diversity. It first washed ashore in San Francisco in 1944. Nutcracker Nation, a bracing treatise by Jennifer Fisher, reveals the “seditious” and empowering influence of the ballet on communities across America, and on generations of artists, both professional and amateur, who were raised in the meritocratic world of The Nutcracker.

Today, troupes around the Bay Area put their own sassy spin on the tale. I canvassed movers and shakers of the holiday dance scene to find out what they love most about these productions. But it's not solely Nutcracker-all-the-time here, so for those firmly of the #NeverNutcracker persuasion, this guide has you covered (those suggestions are farther below).

Stapleton Ballet in Virginia Stapleton’s Nutcracker (Photo courtesy Stapleton Ballet)
Stapleton Ballet in Virginia Stapleton’s 'Nutcracker.' (Photo courtesy Stapleton Ballet)

Stapleton Ballet’s Nutcracker

Dec. 3–4
Marin Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, San Rafael
Information and Tickets

Part of the enchantment of The Nutcracker lies in the sheer scale of its ensemble scenes and in its vivid design statements. Now in its 28th year, Stapleton goes all out -- with 250 young dancers alongside a number of guest artists. Set designer Nick Cann describes the vision behind their latest redesign: “We’ve made a unique artistic statement, from the opening scene in black and white, taken from a Victorian Christmas Card. The costumes and the characters then bring color and life into the scene. As the ballet progresses, fantasia colors filter in.” His battle scene is bathed in fluorescent hot pink, orange, and lime green. “We purposely wanted it in unrealistic and heavily dreamlike colors.”

Liz Anne Roman Roberts, Brian Fisher and Jesse Chin in Mark Foehringer’s Nutcracker Sweets (Photo: Matt Haber)
Liz Anne Roman Roberts, Brian Fisher and Jesse Chin in Mark Foehringer’s 'Nutcracker Sweets.' (Photo: Matt Haber)

Mark Foehringer’s Nutcracker Sweets

Dec. 10–20
Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco
Information and Tickets

Mark Foehringer's Dance Project|SF wraps up the Nutcracker in a tot-friendly 50 minutes of storytelling, ballet, live music, and whimsical designs woven into a piece of dance theater that beguiles adults, too. Brian Fisher, who created the central role of Drosselmeyer, confesses: “What I most look forward to each year is the children's reactions and what they say during the performance. They get so involved, and vocal, that they ultimately become part of the sound score and the performance!”

Oakland Ballet in Graham Lustig’s Nutcracker (Photo: David DeSilva)
Oakland Ballet in Graham Lustig’s 'Nutcracker.' (Photo: David DeSilva)

Oakland Ballet’s Nutcracker

Dec. 17–18
Paramount Theatre, Oakland
Information and Tickets

There is no venue in the Bay Area that can top the glamour of the Art Deco Paramount Theatre, and Graham Lustig’s Nutcracker, set in Vienna on the eve of World War I, looks exceptionally stylish here. Emily Kerr, who has inhabited many roles in the Oakland Ballet production since its debut seven years ago, is particularly struck by Lustig’s storytelling instincts – the Achilles heel of most productions being the paper-thin plot. “Several character relationships are woven throughout this version,” Kerr notes. “For example, Marie's older cousin Vera, whom she idolizes, becomes the Sugar Plum Fairy in her dream.” Lustig masterfully avoids the creepier elements of the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story and the syrupiness of most reinventions. Community collaborations of the highest order include the live performance by the Oakland Symphony, under the direction of Michael Morgan, and the seraphic voices of the Mt. Eden Women’s Ensemble that conjure up snow flurries onstage.

Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier in Berkeley Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker (Photo: Emmanuel Canteras/Berkeley Ballet Theater)
Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier in Berkeley Ballet Theater’s 'Nutcracker.' (Photo: Emmanuel Canteras/Berkeley Ballet Theater)

Berkeley Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker

Dec. 16–18
Regents’ Theater, Holy Names University, Oakland
Information and Tickets

What does Christmas mean to children who have very little? Berkeley Ballet Theater upends a few of the familiar tropes of The Nutcracker -- assigning many of the leading roles to children, and focusing the tale on a young heroine and her brother who are homeless orphans, yearning for a Christmas they’ve never had. For the past ten holiday seasons (this being the eleventh), Kailee Lin has grown up in BBT’s Nutcracker: “The Nutcracker tradition has become a part of me,” she reflects, “that tradition that encompasses friendship, hope, humor, and joy.” Lin’s personal favorite moment in the production is when Clara and Fritz first meet the Sugar Plum Fairy: “The Sugar Plum Fairy and Clara share what we in the company have named the ‘kiss-kiss’ – which, to me, represents the ultimate gesture of friendship. Once, when I was dancing Clara, I got to share the ‘kiss-kiss’ with one of my best friends who was dancing Sugar Plum. This year, I am excited to pass on the ‘kiss-kiss’ again, but this time as the Sugar Plum Fairy -- handing on the tradition and the generous spirit of BBT’s Nutcracker to a future generation of dancers.”

Capt. Nutcracker Poster
Capt. Nutcracker Poster.

San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band’s Dance-Along Nutcracker

Dec. 10–11
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, San Francisco
Information and tickets

The Dance-Along Nutcracker debuted in 1985 as a fundraiser within the LGBT community. This year’s edition of the now-legendary dance extravaganza is captioned "The Fantastic Adventures of Captain Nutcracker," for which the Tchaikovsky score will be festooned with such classics as John Williams' Superman, the theme from the Batman TV series, the theme from The Incredibles, and Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. SFLGFB trumpeter and Dance-Along scriptwriter Heidi Beeler says: “The story is about Clara finding her own superpower and learning she doesn't need to follow a hero. Clara's enchanted prince becomes the chisel-jawed Captain Nutcracker. Rather than battling rats under the tree, he and Clara follow the trail of the nefarious Doctor Ratopolis, who leads the tinseled twosome on a holiday crime spree through the streets of Metro Cisco.” Did the Dance-Along creators believe the city was in dire need of superhero mojo this year? “We actually decided on the superhero theme and began developing the story almost a year ago, before the election rhetoric went supernova,” maintains Beeler. Pull on your electric-blue spandex and shiny cape.

San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's Nutcracker. (Photo: Erik Tomasson)
San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's 'Nutcracker.'
(Photo: Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker

Dec. 10–29
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Information and Tickets

The oldest ballet company in America also gave us the first full-length Nutcracker, and the rousing tale of its birth in wartime San Francisco is a page-turner, as seen in a poignantly illustrated children’s book by Chris Barton and Cathy Gendron called The Nutcracker Comes to America. The book traces the quintessentially American journeys of a trio of brothers from Brigham City, Utah, who profoundly shaped San Francisco Ballet and the landscape of American dance.

In the company’s current production, Helgi Tomasson tips his hat to 1915 San Francisco – with a snow scene worthy of the most magnificent storms in the Sierras. Balletmaster Betsy Erickson drills up to 80 dancers a year for 33 Nutcracker performances. She recalls her days dancing with the company: “I would always be challenging myself to do a little more every year -- Nutcracker was a kind of litmus test to measure your progress as a dancer, on an annual basis. During one season, it seemed like the entire company was felled by the flu, except for me and Jim Sohm. He and I danced many, many performances in a row to cover for people -- in some performances I even danced both lead roles, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Grand Pas de Deux ballerina! We didn’t have as many dancers back then, so that’s just what you did to keep Nutcracker going.”

Among a host of role debuts this season, Mathilde Froustey will essay the Snow Queen on opening night.

Bay Pointe Ballet performs The Nutcracker at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center in San Mateo, California, on December 13, 2014. (Stan Olszewski/SOSKIphoto)
Lindsey Salvadalena & Edgar Lepe in Bruce Steivel’s 'Nutcracker.' (Photo: Stan Olszewski)

Bay Pointe Ballet’s Nutcracker

Dec. 9
Bob Hope Theatre, Stockton
Dec. 16–18
San Mateo Performing Arts Center, San Mateo
Information and Tickets

The original story of the Nutcracker was set in Germany, but Bruce Steivel brings it "home" to romantic St. Petersburg, Russia, the city of the ballet’s birth, where ambassadors and their families gather in a stately home to celebrate the holidays. Steivel professes a particular fondness for the snow scene: “I love the music. And the snow design by Alexander Vassiliev is very beautiful; it magically takes one away to another part of the country.” Founded in 2013, Bay Pointe Ballet is a relative newcomer to the Bay Area. Earlier this year, the South Bay lost Silicon Valley Ballet (known for many years as Ballet San Jose). Some argued that the demise of this distinguished company signaled a lack of enthusiasm for the live arts on the part of the nouveaux tech riche, but the smaller repertory companies like Bay Pointe may prove to be more nimble.

Terez Dean, Dustin James, Tessa Barbour, and Ben Needham-Wood in Nicole Haskins' J-I-N-G-L-E Bells, from Smuin's '2016 The Christmas Ballet'
Terez Dean, Dustin James, Tessa Barbour, and Ben Needham-Wood in Nicole Haskins' J-I-N-G-L-E Bells, from Smuin's '2016 The Christmas Ballet' (Photo: Keith Sutter)

Smuin’s The Christmas Ballet

Dec. 7–11
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Mountain View
Dec. 15–24
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Information and Tickets

For Christmas Ballet virgins, expect a silvery-white classical aperitif followed by a fire-engine red chaser. Don’t be fooled by the name: there are nods to Hanukkah (Michael Smuin’s “Licht bensh’n”), a flirty “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” an homage to tap (“Bells of Dublin”), and dancers in hula skirts. Each season offers a handful of new twists, and this year Smuin dancers Ben Needham-Wood, Rex Wheeler and Nicole Haskins were tapped to supply three new works, with a fourth from resident choreographer Amy Seiwert. Celia Fushille, who took over the company after the sudden death of Michael Smuin in 2007, originated a number of the hallmark roles, including the sizzling siren in “Santa Baby.” Recalling her first performance, she says, “the electric response from the audience was immediate and thrilling for me.” A particular challenge for her each season is deciding which of the many popular works created over The Christmas Ballet’s 22-year history to revive for the current program. She confesses, “It is consistently a pressure. I always wonder if this year’s edition will be as well-received as the last. My greatest hope is that every person leaves the theater feeling joyful!”

ODC/Dance in KT Nelson’s Velveteen Rabbit (Photo: Andrew Weeks)
ODC/Dance in KT Nelson’s 'Velveteen Rabbit.' (Photo: Andrew Weeks)

ODC/Dance’s Velveteen Rabbit

Through Dec. 11
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Information and Tickets

Originally inspired by a Meryl Streep recording of Margery Williams' classic tale of the special bond between a boy and his stuffed rabbit, ODC/Dance’s holiday tradition turns 30 this year. KT Nelson choreographed and directed, with recorded narration by actor Geoff Hoyle and score by Benjamin Britten. Dancer Mia Chong first took part in this iconic production when she was eight, and danced in it for four years: “As a kid I was the Skipper (who opens the show with a little solo), a Snowflake in the short Winter scene, a Swimmer in the Summer scene, and a Present in the Christmas party scene.” Now, 11 years later, she has joined the company as an apprentice. “It's a very surreal full circle, now getting the chance to do the company roles that I grew up watching from the stage wings, and dancing with company members whom I've looked up to since I was a little kid.” This season, she will be a Snowflake, an Aunt of the Boy in the Christmas party scene, and one of the "Real" Rabbits. “While my roles in the show have changed quite a bit over time, Velveteen Rabbit will always be timeless to me,” Chong muses. “Each time I'm in the show, I'm a year older, I bring a different perspective and a bit more life experience to my parts, and therefore, find new meaning in the story and its universal themes. My journey over the years with this production has been filled with growth, humor and love, much like the heartfelt story of the Velveteen Rabbit.”

Ban Rarrá (Photo: Rick Swig)
Ban Rarrá (Photo: Rick Swig)

CubaCaribe presents Ban Rarrá (Havana) and Alayo Dance Company.

Dec. 2–4
Dance Mission Theatre, San Francisco
Information and Tickets

A new era may be dawning in Cuba, though the global influence of its music and dance traditions has long been felt, despite the limitations placed on the international touring of Cuban dance companies. This week brings a rare visit by Ban Rarrá, one of Havana's premier dance companies, in a collaboration with San Francisco’s Alayo Dance Company -- their first such collaboration outside Cuba. Ban Rarrá’s signature blend of Afro-Cuban, Afro-Cuban Haitian and Cuban popular dance -- the invention of choreographer-director Isaias Rojas -- opens a fresh window into dance traditions from Yoruba to Gaga, Vodu and Salsa. Ramón Ramos Alayo, one of San Francisco’s outstanding innovators of Afro-Cuban modern dance, recounts: "Around 1992, when I was a young dancer with Narcisco Medina’s contemporary company in Havana, Isaias was already the distinguished director of Ban Rarrá, a folkloric company. Our companies collaborated then. He has been a role model to me, with his deep understanding of Afro-Cuban Haitian dance forms.” This unusual collaborative performance, Alayo says, “will highlight the differences and similarities between Afro-Cuban Haitian and Afro-Cuban Modern.”

Beth Clarke in Sweet Can Productions’ Mittens and Mistletoe (Photo: Seth Golub)
Beth Clarke in Sweet Can Productions’ 'Mittens and Mistletoe.' (Photo: Seth Golub)

Sweet Can Productions’ Mittens and Mistletoe

Dec. 22–31
Dance Mission Theater
Information and Tickets

Natasha Kaluza -- who identifies herself as “clown, circus artist” -- and her husband and clown partner, Jamie Coventry, conceived of this "winter circus cabaret" in 2010. They corral a fine bunch of Bay Area circus artists for these holiday hijinks which this season feature live music on the charango from Clay Letson, comedy sketches, and performances on slack rope, aerial hoop, hula hoop, and juggling. “Though it’s based on the standard cabaret format, stringing together individual acts,” Kaluza explains, “Mittens & Mistletoe has increasingly incorporated more ensemble work and more audience participation. We’ve also started to work around a theme -- this year it’s the Wild West!” This season’s lineup includes Oriana Quesada, who returns to her native Bay Area to perform a classic Chinese act known as "Rola Bola Kick Bowls," which was handed down from SF Circus Center Masters Lu Yi and Xia Ke Min. “I don't believe anyone else in the area is performing this act,” Kaluza notes, “so it is truly special to have Oriana back home, making her first appearance with Sweet Can Productions.”

Dance Brigade in Krissy Keefer’s Gracias a la Vida (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)
Dance Brigade in Krissy Keefer’s 'Gracias a la Vida' (Photo: Robbie Sweeny)

Dance Brigade’s 40th Anniversary Season

Jan. 13–14
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
Information and Tickets

If you decide to stay home over the holidays in some form of Scrooge-like protest, be sure to get out of your pajamas by mid-January in time to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Dance Brigade, the fearless feminist dance theatre collective captained by choreographer Krissy Keefer. Joining Keefer and her company on this occasion for a reprise of Love in a Bitter Time and Gracias a la Vida are a diverse group of artists and musicians who’ve collaborated with them over the decades, including international peace activist and vocalist Holly Near, musical director Christelle Durandy and vocalist Gina Breedlove. Their imaginative practice, often provocative and funny, has given voice to the oppressed across the many cultures in which San Francisco’s heritage is rooted. Where will Dance Brigade’s political energies be focused next? "Unfortunately it seems as though history, and therefore the subject matter of our pieces, is repeating,” Keefer replied. “In 1984, for example, we did a piece on COINTELPRO. This year, our work Sin Palabras focused on internet government surveillance. And clearly our newly elected president will provide much 'material' as he erodes the few gains we have made -- whether in race relations, women's rights, the environment, or economic disparities… All require a clear artistic response to keep us engaged and alive."



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