By Sharon Chin

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — An American holiday tradition that began in San Francisco has returned to the live stage this holiday.

The beloved Nutcracker opens the San Francisco Ballet’s season at the War Memorial Opera House after the stage went dark for 21 months in the pandemic.

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Dancers like Sasha De Sola jumped right into rehearsals.

“There’s nothing like the feeling of live performance with an audience. You can’t replicate it so I’m so excited, the company’s excited to be back,” De Sola said.

We got an exclusive peek at some of the first in-person practice sessions leading up to the ballet’s season of celebration. Principal dancer Nikisha Fogo, who plays the Sugar Plum Fairy joined the troupe from Vienna last year.

“It feels extra special because I get to perform with the company for the first time,” Fogo said.

It’s also the 37th – and final year – for principal choreographer and artistic director Helgi Tomasson.

“I have accomplished everything I set out to do,” Tomasson said. “Now it’s time to pass it on to someone else.”

The 79-year-old Iceland-born dancer has left his heart – and trailblazing mark – in San Francisco. The city’s ballet company was already the first to bring a full-length Nutcracker to the U.S. 77 years ago. Then, in 2004, Tomasson took it a step farther.

“We love our city here, so why not use it?” he said.

Tomasson set the holiday production in the city in 1915, the year of the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, a world’s fair to celebrate San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. Like today, the theme then was resilience.

“I just try to imagine for children then to come into those different pavilions from around the world,” said Tomasson. “It must have been magical.”

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During Tomasson’s tenure, the San Francisco Ballet also performed several times in New York City, and worldwide, in cities like Beijing, Copenhagen, London, and Paris.

“He’s brought the SF Ballet to the international level,” Fogo said.

De Sola, who performs in the Nutcracker’s Grand Pas de Deux, added, “He really has shaped me as a dancer, as a human being.”

“What I love about him is he really values the individual dancer and their individual qualities. That’s something really special about Helgi,” she said.

The dancers in small pods showcased their talents livestreaming digital performances during the COVID shutdown. Some performances will debut on stage next year, including “Harmony,” which Tomasson choreographed while working from home.

But first, the Nutcracker, a tradition that takes him back to one of his earliest performances as a dancer.

“I believe I was eight years old. The music was Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker,” he said. “I never get tired of the music. It’s a joyous ballet.”

Armed with that joy, Tomasson and his company are leaping into a new season bringing back their magic on stage.

When he retires, Tomasson says he and his wife plan to travel to Europe to see their family, especially their grandchildren.

The SF Ballet is searching for Tomasson’s successor.

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