In stride: a tight, bright ‘Nutcracker’

Oregon Ballet Theatre's newest version of the Balanchine holiday ballet shines from tip to toe

Little girls in party dresses;  lobby kiosks packed with nutcrackers and pretend tiaras and Christmas tree ornaments; the sound of the orchestra tuning up; parents rushing down the aisle with booster seats for the littlest audience members; the aroma of fresh baked cookies.  All were part of the anticipatory chaos at Keller Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, just before Oregon Ballet Theatre opened its annual run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.

Students from the School of Oregon Ballet Theatre performing as Angels in this year’s OBT “Nutcracker.” Photo: James McGrew

My sequin-clad granddaughter (hers were pink; a little girl in front of us was wearing purple) and less dressed-up grandson were with me for the best-rehearsed, best-danced opening performance of  this Nutcracker I’ve seen in the thirteen years OBT has been performing it. Clarity, musicality, technical precision that looked spontaneous (artistry, in other words) were the hallmarks of the opening matinee, making a ballet that is way too familiar to yours truly look fresh and new.

Tchaikovsky’s score (talk about familiar!) also sounded newly minted, because of the way it was performed by the OBT orchestra, under the baton of Niel de Ponte, who was conducting it, as he said on his Facebook page, for the thirty-first season. Parts of it made me tear up: the Grandfather dance in the first act; the lush, romantic sweep of the music for the Grand Pas de Deux in the second. That’s the good news. The bad news is that there are only four more performances with live orchestra (check the OBT website for which ones). Seven out of nineteen is better than it was, but it’s not good enough, since live music makes all the difference, especially for the dancers.

The children, all of them, were nothing short of terrific, from Marie and Fritz, Drosselmeier’s nephew (who becomes the Nutcracker Prince and then Act II’s Little Prince) to the smallest party guest in Act I, and in Act II the little angels, the Polichinelles emerging from Mother Ginger’s skirts, Candy Canes, and Chinese Tea peeps.  They were dancing their hearts out for Gavin Larsen, their loving, meticulous coach, who’s leaving town shortly for a full-time teaching job in Asheville, North Carolina. And for us. And for themselves. And it showed.

From left: Erin Norris, Aubrey Kazami, Emily Parker, Jessica Lind as Snow. Photo: James McGrew

Of course Balanchine’s Nutcracker, which is not without flaws, is, as it happens, all about children – starting with Marie, who dreams of a nutcracker coming to life; giant mice conquered by toy soldiers; a growing Christmas tree; and a journey (by bed), escorted by the Nutcracker Prince, through the Land of Snow to the Land of  Sweets. There the two children are welcomed by the Sugar Plum Fairy, hordes of dancing sweets perform for their pleasure, and they return home via walnut boat. End of story.

I was extremely impressed by Finnian Carmeci – whom I saw twice, in the triple role of Nephew/Nutcracker/Little Prince, the second time at the Sunday matinee – partnering two different Maries.  Carmeci is a model of courtliness in his interactions with Marie (Ruby Mae Lefebvre on Saturday, Kemi Olajuyin on Sunday) and possesses remarkable stage presence  for one so young. Moreover, he knows how to use his face, giving his Maries tender, reassuring looks as he escorts them on their journey, gazing triumphantly at the back of the Keller’s cavernous house after he removes the vanquished Mouse King’s ear. The few leaps and turns he was required to make were executed with ease and confidence at both performances, and he’s clearly a dancer who’s going places other than the Kingdom of the Sweets.

Lefebvre, who has danced Marie before, was particularly good in what Artistic Director Kevin Irving in his pre-curtain speech described as the “scary parts” in Act I, running frantically around the stage while the most un-menacing Christmas tree in the Nutcracker business (and it is a business) grew more feebly than bigly, and in the battle scene bravely tossing her shoe at the Mouse King (nicely played by Adam Hartley), to distract him from attacking the Nutcracker Prince.

Ruby Mae Lefebvre repeats her performance as Marie, which she also played last year. Photo: James McGrew/2015

On Sunday, I was impressed by the clarity of Olajuyin’s mime as she awakens from a nap in front of the scrim that veils the Stahlbaum family’s conventional parlor, decorated for the Christmas Eve party.  Johannes Gikas, as naughty brother Fritz, was less energetic than he was the day before, but nevertheless a convincing brat.

The grown-ups at both matinees were just as good as the kids.  Brian Simcoe, who is one of this company’s most versatile dancers, played a Drosselmeier who danced with courtly dignity as a party guest, having made an entrance in slightly sulfurous light.  When acting the magician, there is more than a hint of mysterious villainy in his body language. As the lead Candy Cane in Act II on Sunday his enjoyment of the tricky role (it requires musically timed balletic jumping through a swinging hoop) was palpable.  Shortly after that, due to a casting glitch, Simcoe posed and mugged his way through Mother Ginger’s schtick, doing a perfectly credible job in a role he had not rehearsed, and with a very hard act to follow.

That was Portland’s stellar drag queen Poison Waters on opening day, and how I love the very idea of a Land of Sweets participant with the word Poison in his name. He is hands-down the most amusing Mother Ginger I’ve seen in any version of The Nutcracker, getting maximum mileage out of powdering his nose and armpits, fan-waving, drink-swigging, and in the process thoroughly upstaging the tumbling child bonbons. Moreover, I am deeply grateful to him for successfully distracting me from the florid vulgarity of the second act backdrop, whose design, if you can call it that, bears absolutely no relationship to the action’s location in the Land of the Sweets.

This is presided over by the Sugar Plum Fairy, performed on Saturday by Eva Burton, whom I’d not seen dancing the legendary role, although she’s been doing it since the 2014/15 season.  Burton is lovely in this role, managing to be at once otherworldly and slightly maternal, as all the best Sugar Plums are, when she welcomes the Little Prince and Princess to her domain. In the Grand Pas de Deux that concludes the act’s divertissements, her fleet, accurate point work, the fluidity of her port de bras, and the charm of her smile added to the enchantment, and her leap onto her Cavalier’s shoulder was a marvel of musicality and timing. Colby Parsons as her Cavalier proved himself a considerate, helpful partner, and he nailed the pyrotechnics involved in his own variation.

It occurred to me while watching this pas de deux on Sunday (danced by Candace Bouchard, who sparkled as Dewdrop on Saturday, and Peter Franc as her courtly Cavalier) that this feature of all 19th century classical ballets provides an object lesson in how men should treat women, in contrast to the example set by the president-elect. While the male dancer does get a chance to strut his stuff in his variation, he is basically there to support the ballerina, physically and more often than not, psychologically.   

The mice run amok in “The Nutcracker.” Photo: James McGrew

There were other outstanding performances in the two matinees, one by Ansa Deguchi as the lead Marzipan Shepherdess on Saturday.  Oregon-born and trained ballerina Janet Reed originated this role in Balanchine’s 1954 production, and Deguchi danced it with wit and charm.  The choreography for this divertissement has not changed since the ballet premiered; unfortunately this is not true of Coffee, originally a pas de cinq for a man costumed as a bare-chested Arab, who performs a highly acrobatic solo, and four little girls dressed as parakeets. It had considerable charm, something sadly lacking in the hootchy-kootchy solo version Balanchine made a decade later when City Ballet moved from City Center to what was then the State Theater at Lincoln Center.

Kimberly Nobriga and Katherine Monogue – both of them fine dancers, who performed the solo on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, respectively – did the best they could with what amounts to pretty ordinary choreography, but it seems to me that the best way to cope with such sexism is to dance it with a satirical edge, the way Alison Roper used to do it.   

These, however, are quibbles.  In this run of The Nutcracker, the company has hit its stride, and hit it well and hard. Rehearsal Director Lisa Kipp and Ballet Master Jeffrey Stanton, both of whom have years of dancing in various versions of the ballet under their belts, can take some bows along with the dancers they’ve coached so well. 

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Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker continues at Keller Auditorium through December 26. Ticket and schedule information here.

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