SAN FRANCISCO — "Nutcrackers," the ballet version, are generally regarded as being good for three things: building audiences, giving young dancers valuable stage experience and paying the bills.
The dance world has never been able to fashion another balletic golden egg as reliable, profitable and enjoyable as "The Nutcracker," with its childhood fantasies of mysterious guests, menacing rodents and amiable fantasies of strawberry shortcake and dancing marzipan mushrooms.
San Francisco Ballet, home to the oldest full-length "Nutcracker" in America, brings its yule-fantasy fund-raiser South again today (with repeats, Friday through Sunday) for seven performances at the San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St., San Diego.
The Bay Area troupe is using its "Nutcracker" as a calling card, the first offering of a three-year residency in a city that may turn out to be its second California home.
Reconceived last year by Argentine designer Jose Varona, San Francisco Ballet's "Nutcracker" is an oddity in this era of psychologically motivated dances. In this one, the emphasis is decidedly on the visual elements of ballet.
"Our goal was to create a 'Nutcracker' geared specifically toward children, although we hope their parents will derive a great deal of pleasure from it too," said San Francisco Ballet artistic director Helgi Tomasson.
The company had been planning to revise its aging production, a version that had been touched up only minimally since 1954, when Lew Christensen spiffed up brother Willam's original 1944 staging. Then, when Christensen died suddenly in 1984, the company went ahead with plans for a new "Nutcracker," letting Varona, Christensen's chosen designer, mastermind the production.
The result is a "Nutcracker" with strong ties to realism in its details of dress and its ambiance of the cozy opulence of Germany in the 1830s. Varona evokes these elements in a first-act party scene that could pass for a period staging of a silent drama.
"This is in the line of traditional 'Nutcrackers,' " Varona said, shortly before the premiere in December, 1986.
"To me, the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story is too complicated and too sinister. I don't think it goes with Tchaikovsky's music, so richly romantic and sweet. I wanted something more oriented to children, to awaken them to theatrical magic."
Varona's designs emphasize period detail and manner in a way that attempts to establish a social and cultural context for this tale of childhood innocence and the rich rewards that await good behavior.
The production, set in the Biedermeier era of Germany in the 1830s, suggests innocence and gaiety anchored in the specifics of a real time and place.
"The illusions (of this period) were still very pure, as is the story," Varona said. "It was when the Germans began collecting fairy tales and when family life was cherished. The Biedermeier ideals were the last breath of positive dreaming in modern times."
Not all the changes are in the decors , however. Tomasson has revised the large ensemble sections of the Waltzes of the Snowflakes and Flowers, and artistic director emeritus Willam Christensen has tightened up the opening party scene.
At the same time, Anatole Vilzak, a teacher at the S.F. Ballet school, has inserted a showy Russian trepak in place of the old Ribbon Candy solo. This is a $1-million production in which the detailed costumes may indicate where every penny went.
Among those who will be watching not only where the pennies went but also where they are coming from is Maxine Mahon. Mahon is director of the San Diego-based California Ballet Company, which for the past 17 years has been presenting its own 'Nutcracker" in the same theater where the San Francisco Ballet will play.
"There are a lot of complicated feelings around here about this," said Mahon, whose school is supplying several of the 150 local children including the Clara, to San Francisco Ballet's production.
"I don't think the community of San Diego is strong enough to support this many 'Nutcrackers.' I'm supposed to put up a stiff upper lip," Mahon said.
"But I'm really just crossing my fingers that more really is better."