By MARTHA ULLMAN WEST
It’s a long time, very, since I’ve been bewitched by a “Nutcracker” performance, though I have frequently been enchanted by individual dancers and the way in which such set pieces as Snow and the Waltz of the Flowers have been done. And I still consider the Campbell Baird Imperial Russia-infused costume and set designs for James Canfield’s version at Oregon Ballet Theatre the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
Having said that, last Saturday night OBT’s dancers performed George Balanchine’s “ The Nutcracker” with such joy and commitment — and musicality and fine-tuned, precise technique — that in some ways I felt I was seeing it for the first time.
That’s not just because of the bravura dancing in the second act, the divertissements that keep dedicated ballet viewers coming back year after year to see how well a company’s ballerinas (and I don’t use that term lightly; not everyone dancing in pointe shoes is a ballerina) perform Dewdrop, the Sugarplum Fairy or Coffee; or how the principal men dance Sugarplum’s Cavalier, or Hot Chocolate, or the unspeakably Orientalist Tea.
This ballet demands a lot more than musicality and technique from the dancers, at least in Balanchine’s version. The principal children (there are three: Marie, Fritz, and Drosselmeier’s nephew, who becomes the Nutcracker in Act 1 and the Little Prince in Act 2) must be able to act, perform musically timed mime, and dance. Character roles abound in Act 1, too. Drosselmeier must in turn be avuncular, mysterious, stern, courtly, and more than a little sinister. Marie’s parents, Dr. and Frau Stahlbaum, are called upon to act like middle-class Germans of the 19th century, going through a family ritual, and the party guests, large and small, must be able to pull off the stately Grandfather dance, possibly my favorite part of Tchaikowsky’s all too familiar score. And company members must be able to look like wind-up dolls, not flesh and blood dancers as they emerge from Drosselmeier’s gift box.
Remarkable, then, considering the upheaval that continues at the company – artistic director Christopher Stowell announced late last month that he is leaving the company effective the end of this month, and the scrambling for new leadership has begun – that this “Nutcracker” hits such a height. Individually, how did the performers do on Saturday night? In the first act, the party children were impeccably rehearsed by Gavin Larsen, and danced with the natural impulse of the young, just as Balanchine intended in his choreography. As “naughty” Fritz, Collin Trummel was completely convincing, and I loved the “Oh gee whiz!” resignation of the way he stomped across the stage to Drosselmeier to be disciplined after he broke the nutcracker.
Jennifer White, as Marie, moves beautifully, although I’d like to have seen a little more fearfulness in her running as she searched for her nutcracker in the darkened Stahlbaum parlor. But I loved the professional way that she, Wyatt McConville-McCoy (who has done a splendid Fritz in the past) as the nutcracker come-to-life, and Adam Hartley as the Mouse King covered the fact that White missed hitting the Mouse King with her shoe. As the Stahlbaums, Haiyan Wu danced a radiantly happy hostess and tender-hearted mother, and Brian Simcoe a courtly host and slightly harassed father. Company historian Linda Besant has developed the Grandmother role with downplayed humor; and David Threefoot, father of Lucas (who, alas, got only a minute or so onstage Saturday night in the second act Tea) did well as the anxious Grandfather. As for the mechanical dolls, Ye Li really did look like a wind-up soldier, jumping high with flexed feet; Julia Rowe as Columbine did fine, and Olivia Ornelas ditto as Columbine.
To Brett Bauer, for his polished, detailed, and highly nuanced interpretation of Herr Drosselmeier, goes my biggest Act 1 bouquet. I believe Bauer to be the best Drosselmeier I’ve seen, though I never saw Balanchine do the role, or Robert La Fosse, who by all accounts has been spectacular as the toymaker/magician. Kevin Poe, who danced it at the matinee, is also marvelous. Bauer is avuncular and comic, though occasionally stern in the party scene, and downright sinister as he repairs the nutcracker and creates Marie’s dream of the growing Christmas tree. (The tree is crucial: Balanchine, when told by City Center management when he created his version of the ballet that the mechanism for the tree was too expensive, said that the tree was the ballet, and got 80 grand for it, a fortune in 1954.)
Act 1 ends with the snow scene, which reveals Balanchine at his most skillful in creating kaleidoscopic movement for a corps de ballet. On Saturday night Candace Bouchard, Rowe, Grace Shibley, and Makino Hayashi stood out (but not too much!) for their speed and swirling energy. But I missed the live singing of the children’s choir from behind the scenery that enhances the scene’s celebratory feeling.
Act 2 begins with the gliding dance (inspired by Balanchine’s native Georgian folk dance) of the little angels, who usually make me want to call for an angel swatter. But not this year. I think they may have been a slightly older group than in previous years, and they danced smoothly, united in grace, as was the entire company. Then Marie and her Little Prince escort arrive in the Kingdom of the Sweets (with not a sweet in sight on the backdrop, unless those are meant to be candied flowers) by walnut boat. There, McConville-McCoy executed the mime from the original Petipa-Ivanov “Nutcracker” with admirable clarity and éclat. He’s a nice young dancer, with real stage presence, and I enjoyed watching every move he made.
Since OBT’s fall opener, I’ve felt the same way about Xuan Cheng. As the Sugarplum Fairy on Saturday night, she looked as if she was made of spun sugar and could break at any minute. But she danced as if she were as indestructible as steel cable, her affect otherworldly in her solo variation, humanly romantic in the Grand Pas de Deux with Chauncey Parsons as her elegant Cavalier. Their performance of that pyrotechnical set piece was darned near flawless, marred only by a thin-sounding orchestra. You can tell that Parsons has been trained by the Russians (he’s a Kirov Academy graduate); in his variation he delivered the jetés and tours en ménage with accuracy and attention to line, of course, but also with considerable panache.
The Dewdrop Fairy has no Cavalier to support her in balancés, of which Mr. B. gives her plenty, along with steps that must be executed with the speed of a dewdrop melting in the hot summer sun. This makes the linchpin of the Waltz of the Flowers one of the most difficult ballerina roles in the Balanchine canon. Alison Roper’s performance on Saturday night was iconic, not a word I use if I can avoid it. Eloquent and fast (oh lord was she fast), her joyful dancing was, for me, literally breathtaking.
Of the other diverts, as balletomanes call them, Javier Ubell’s Candy Cane hoop dance, a role Balanchine performed himself as a student at the Imperial School, made the timing required look like fun; and Simcoe, leading what I call the Cocoa variation because of the milky-colored costumes, danced with such musically accented flair that I renamed it spicy Mexican chocolate. Martina Chavez’s Coffee was musical and technically accurate, but I missed Roper’s satirical smile at the end, which gives it the send-up it so richly deserves. Balanchine changed it from the 1954 original, which featured a male dancer smoking a hookah surrounded by four little girls costumed as birds, in order to please, he said, the fathers in the audience. I’d give anything to have that restored, though I think Kent Stowell, in collaboration with Maurice Sendak, solved the problem admirably at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet by creating a solo for a pretty fine peacock.
Saturday night’s performance had Christopher Stowell’s fingerprints all over it, as did the opening matinee, judging from Catherine Thomas’s review of it in the Oregonian. The dancing was so textured, the interpretations so detailed. And bear in mind, there are opportunities during the run (there are 11 more performances, the last one on the 23rd) to see all of these dancers in different roles. Shibley will probably do Sugarplum; Threefoot the Cavalier; Rowe did Dewdrop at the opening matinee and may do it again; Parsons did the hoop dance, and so it goes. Check the OBT website for casting.
Magical, that’s what this Nutcracker is, and give me a break, I can hear ArtsWatchers snorting through cyberspace. But in this case, the magic is very real – and it’s OBT’s dancers who cast the spell.