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The 1986 Christensen/Tomasson Nutcracker

The 1986 Christensen/Tomasson Nutcracker

“Lew wanted changes. Now it’s up to you to make them work.”

Lew Christensen was working on yet another production of Nutcracker at the time of his death in 1984, and had already chosen Jose Varona as his designer. Helgi Tomasson, who was named artistic director in 1985, went ahead with Christensen’s plans, unveiling the company’s fourth production of Nutcracker in 1986.

San Francisco Ballet in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker. (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)
San Francisco Ballet in Christensen and Tomasson’s 1986 Nutcracker. (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)

Varona set the first act in Germany in the 1830s, the Biedermeier period. Beginning with the prologue, which looked like a vintage postcard, the designs established a strong sense of time and place. The tree was grander, and the 170 gorgeous costumes were filled with intricate details that added texture to the production. The Kingdom of Sweets was truly a child’s fantasy land.

Set model for the Land of Sweets sequences for Christensen and Tomasson’s 1986 Nutcracker

The production featured much of Lew Christensen’s choreography, but there were also contributions from Willam Christensen and Helgi Tomasson. “There are little changes all through the production,” says Tomasson. “One big change is that Willam used his own party scene in the first act.” It was expanded to include more children; in fact, the population of the whole ballet grew considerably.

SF Ballet in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)
SF Ballet in Christensen and Tomasson’s 1986 Nutcracker (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)

Tomasson added some lovely touches throughout the production, and completely redid a few of the second act variations. “Lew did not want a dragon in the Chinese dance any more,” Tomasson said. “So I had to come up with something else and rechoreograph.”

Julian Montaner in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker (© Marty Sohl. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design, San Francisco)
Julian Montaner in Christensen and Tomasson’s 1986 Nutcracker (© Marty Sohl. Courtesy of the Museum of Performance + Design, San Francisco)

The Ribbon Dance was replaced by the traditional Trepak, choreographed by Anatole Vilzak, who taught at San Francisco Ballet School for many years and performed with the Mariinsky Theater. “I spoke to Gisella [Christensen] about the changes,” says Tomasson. “She said, ‘Lew wanted changes. Now it’s up to you to make them work.’”

Gregory Russell, Andre Reyes, and Christopher Anderson as Russian Cossacks in Lew Christensen's Nutcracker, 1986. (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)
Gregory Russell, Andre Reyes, and Christopher Anderson as Russian Cossacks in Christensen and Tomasson’s 1986 Nutcracker, 1986. (© Marty Sohl. Photo courtesy of SFMPD.)

by Sheryl Flatow

Header image: Design sketch for Christensen and Tomasson’s Nutcracker, circa 1986