A wonderful cast at the new San Francisco Ballet ?Nutcracker? last night. I went specifically to see soloist Sarah Van Patten debut in the grand pas de deux, and I was not disappointed. I was slow to warm to Van Patten when she joined SFB from the Royal Danish Ballet two seasons ago. She got trotted out in an odd assortment of parts (including, at one gala, Suzanne Farrell?s role in Balanchine?s ?Diamonds??a high-pressure way to make your first appearance with a new company). She?s a strikingly individual dancer, with a big pretty face and soft lines, but not until the Balanchine Festival last season was I convinced about her. She was gorgeous in ?Serenade,? sweeping across the stage with her lush sense of musicality and her fluid, exaggerated ?paulement. And she was the best of the Calliopes I saw in ?Apollo.?

She can appear haughty and imperious (she was not at all, in retrospect, miscast in ?Diamonds?), but last night in that grand pas de deux she was all warmth and wonder. Van Patten knows how to dance from character, as her Calliope proved, and last night she was fully the little girl transformed into a womanly princess. She made deliberate, intriguing choices in phrasing, freezing a high clear retire in her variation and yet giving every movement a velvety softness. She can hold a lovely high clear arabesque in promenade, and yet she has no sharp edges. This has drawbacks?she?s not notable for crisp footwork and she?s not a speedy turner. She ended the final piqu? turns in her variation early, and pretty much plowed through the climactic turns with her partner. But she never blundered. She commands the stage and she dances like no one else. She?s one of my favorite women in the company right now, and she?s going to keep growing.

Sergio Torrado partnered her as the Nutcracker Prince. His dancing seems stagnated: He has muscle power but little gentility and almost no rebound. All the energy of his jumps thuds right back into the floor. The big bonus of last night?s cast was Tina LeBlanc as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Others have recognized her as of late as ?peerless? and ?one of the country?s leading ballerinas,? and the descriptions are not too gushing. Her absolute clarity in the part made Tomasson?s simple but effective choreography look its best.

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