Snow flurries, dancing rats and a young girl’s adventure through magical realms are iconic elements of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. However, every version is slightly different and reflects the ballet company that produced it.
San José and San Francisco’s productions are two of the main ones in the Bay Area and while they both stay true to the ballet’s classic themes, they have taken an updated approach in recent years and added twists of their own.
Karen Gabay, artistic associate and choreographer for Ballet San José’s Nutcracker, was a principal dancer with the company for more than 30 years before choreographing the updated Nutcracker last year.
“I’ve done choreography for the company (before),” she said, “but nothing of a full length.”
Gabay said this year’s Nutcracker won’t be any different than last year’s debut, but she is working on “refining everything” after seeing the full production.
“These are sets and costumes from American Ballet Theatre, a production that they don’t use any longer,” she said, “so I didn’t see any sets until two days before it was going to go on-stage.”
Ballet San José’s latest version of the Nutcracker is unique because it includes an additional section called the Hard Nut, which is an adaptation introduced in 1991 by Mark Morris, Gabay said.
“Most productions kind of give you a synopsis … (and) start at the Nutcracker already being the doll,” she said. “It’s a play within a play, telling that story on how the Prince became the Nutcracker, so that when you’re in the story of it and he’s the Nutcracker, you kind of understand how he became the Nutcracker.”
Ommi Pipit-Suksun, a principal dancer of Ballet San José and the female lead in this year’s Nutcracker, spent eight years with the San Francisco Ballet before coming to San José last year and said that while San José’s production is a bit “simpler,” it “has more character.”
“I think (the Hard Nut) is very unique,” she said. “I’ve never seen that before.”
Pipit-Suksun dances the traditional role of Clara, who is named Marie in San José’s production and is the young girl who receives the Nutcracker doll as a gift from her godfather at a party on Christmas Eve.
“In SFB’s version, I believe Clara turns into this ballerina princess at the end and dances with the Nutcracker but in this version the same girl dances in the party scene and in the grande pas de deux,” she said. “I think it’s going to be fun trying to find that naïve, cute side in me again, ‘cause I think she’s supposed to be 11.”
Brittany Bond-Braatz, a fifth year English and dance major at SJSU, said she has gone to the San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker annually since her first birthday and that it updated its version of it around 2005.
“They redid all their costumes, all their sets and that’s when they worked in more of the changes like (a) magic time box,” she said. “There’s always the problem of the Clara figure, whether or not she’s danced by a child or an adult, so they have a child version who then steps into this mirrored box and comes out an adult version.”
Bond-Braatz said that while she’s been to other local Nutcrackers, San Francisco’s is her favorite.
“They have a really big budget so the sets and the costumes are amazing,” she said. “They also have a really large company that’s all very good, so pretty much no matter what day you go you’re always going to see some of their best dancers doing the roles.”
Damifr Emric, a soloist at Ballet San José with several roles in the Nutcracker, has been with the company for almost 15 years but also danced with the San Francisco Ballet for the 2007-08 season.
“(Ballet San José) is a smaller environment so everyone’s very meshed in with one another and we’re all really close friends,” Emric said. “It’s harder in a bigger company, there’s a lot more cliques and you know, so it’s different.”
The size of the production isn’t the only difference between the two Nutcracker productions, according to Pipit-Suksun, who said that Gabay added elements of neo-classical influence to the dancing style.
“Classical (ballet), you’re very symmetrical,” she said, “but in … her variation, there’s a lot more fluid movement and not so rigid.”
Prior to Gabay’s latest version, Emric said that there has only been one other version at Ballet San Jose since 1998.
“Every Nutcracker is very different, so it’s nice to get to do something different and tell a different story in a different way,” he said. “I think it definitely lends to an advantage when you can specifically choreograph in the people that you have (currently), and then your vision is a little more cohesive.”