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snowflake1110

Photo: Brian Feulner, Special to the Chronicle
Joan Vickers, 92, was a snowflake in the first production of San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker” in 1944.

I was surprised to learn that the “Nutcracker” ballet — which my youngest granddaughter and thousands of little girls and boys around the world were part of this past Christmas — was first performed in the United States in 1944. I guess I thought it was eternal. How could there ever have been a time that the “Nutcracker” was not performed at Christmas? But such is the case. And every ballet company that performs it now does something different to make the event its own.

Sam Whiting reports at the San Francisco Chronicle, “It was wartime 1944 when San Francisco first felt the magic of a Christmas Eve snowfall. It lasted 10 minutes, and Joan Vickers remembers it clearly.

“Vickers was in the first full-length ‘Nutcracker’ to be staged in America, a San Francisco Ballet production at the War Memorial Opera House. Act 1 ended in the Land of the Snowflakes, according to the program, and there were no special effects. There was only a 17-year-old Vickers and 15 other corps members dressed in white. They each held a stick with a white star at the tip of it, and they waved them around like sparklers.

“ ‘We became the snow,’ said the now 92-year-old Vickers, from her home in Alameda. ‘The audience was amazed and in awe.’

“Bay Area audiences continue to be in awe as the holiday tradition continues, and the snow scene has only intensified over the decades. ‘Nutcracker’ has been updated four times — in 1954, 1967, 1986 and 2004 — with the last revision orchestrated by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, who took the setting from snowbound 19th century Europe to 20th century San Francisco … when a jeweled city rose straight out of the sand to form the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

“Despite the Mediterranean climate, the snow still falls, though in this production, it comes in the form of 600 pounds of confetti dropped from the fly space by a six-person crew. …

“ ‘As a child (in Iceland), I was always amazed at what a snowstorm can look like and how monumental and beautiful they can be,’ said Tomasson by email from Copenhagen, where the company was on tour. ‘I wanted to re-create that personal memory for San Francisco.’

“The snow falls with a ferocity probably unmatched by any other production of ‘Nutcracker,’ which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892 with an original score by Tchaikovsky and is now revived in some form each Christmas season by just about every ballet company.

“The ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ is so beloved that it has its own YouTube category. … In San Francisco it comes down like it does in the film ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller,’ which is to say once it starts it doesn’t stop. It gets in the hair and the eyelashes of the dancers, and piles up on the floor to slicken the stage. …

“Jasmine Jimison, a 17-year-old member of the corps de ballet, said it can be arduous to dance upon ‘the snow’ each night, even with caking her slippers in rosin to take the stage.

“ ‘Dancing in the snow scene is an experience like no other. It’s scary and exciting at the same time,’ said Jimison, also reached in Copenhagen last week. ‘There’s always the stress of not slipping or having enough stamina, especially once the snow starts falling really hard toward the end. I’m so exhausted by that point that my legs feel like Jell-O and I can barely see, but adrenaline helps push me through, and the escalating music adds to it.’ …

“Artistic Director Willam Christensen designed [the first US ‘Nutcracker’] as a one-season production inspired by a San Francisco visit by George Balanchine in the fall of 1944. Balanchine had danced in the full-length production of ‘Nutcracker’ in Russia and encouraged Christensen to create his own. …

“The restrictions of the war effort necessitated that budgets and materials were tight. There was only $1,000 allotted for costumes … so all of the red velvet for the outfits came from the curtain of the Cort Theater on Ellis Street, which had been demolished. … The opera house was under a blackout order, and air raid wardens were in the audience ready to blow their whistles.

“The production then went on the road to Oakland, Sacramento and Stockton, and that was to be the end of it. The following Christmas, Christensen mounted ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and ‘it was a failure,’ Vickers said. They tried other productions, but nothing else worked, so in 1948 Christensen brought back ‘Nutcracker’ for good.”

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