Nutcracking the code, with feeling

At its best, OBT's 'Nutcracker' goes beyond technique to the ballet's transformative heart

Of all the dumb questions adults ask children, “What did you like best?” is probably the dumbest of all. I am guilty of asking my grandson that very question on Saturday, as we left the Keller Auditorium after seeing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s opening matinee of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.”

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Xuan Cheng as Dewdrop. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

The answer surprised me.  “When the Nutcracker turned into a Prince,” he said, decisively. What I expected him to love was the battle between the bellicose mice and the toy soldiers, and the Nutcracker’s victory over the Mouse King, which he had certainly applauded with all his five-year-old might.  Or, since he has often said he likes “ballerina” dancing, I was certain he’d succumb to the magic of the waltzing snowflakes that closes Act One, or Act Two’s Waltz of the Flowers and Balanchine’s brilliant addition of the Dewdrop Fairy. He looked enraptured watching the first; the last comes too late in the ballet for such a young viewer.

But his answer also pleased me. He obviously gets it. “Turning into,” otherwise known as transformation, is what this “Nutcracker” (and many others) is all about: a middle-class German girl becomes a princess; a kitchen implement becomes a prince; a small Christmas tree becomes enormous, and dancers become sparkling candies, who perform ersatz national dances especially for the little prince and princess, who have traveled to their kingdom from the warm Stahlbaum parlor through the chilly land of the snow.

The success of these transformations (except for the tree, which “grew” more effectively at this performance than it has in the past) depends on the performers, the lighting designer and the orchestra, which sounded under-rehearsed in the first act (not their fault) and hit its stride in the second.

On Saturday afternoon, (there are cast changes for most performances) the dancing highlights in the Act I party scene, the setup for these adventures, were provided by Brian Simcoe and Haiyan Wu, as the Stahlbaum parents. Wu was a gracious hostess and tender-hearted mother, Simcoe was a patient father, up to a point, and both led their children and party guests, young and old alike, in the social dances of the day. As Fritz, Collin Trummel, who’s getting too tall for this role, was gratifyingly bratty as he deliberately broke his sister’s new and very beloved Nutcracker; and Jenny White, as Marie, acted and danced with the naturalness that was Balanchine’s goal in choreographing this scene. (So, for that matter, did all the children in this performance.)

There is nothing natural about the dancing dolls brought to the party by Drosselmeier, or at least there shouldn’t be. As the Soldier, Ye Li was most successful at combining bravura jumps with mechanical stiffness. Eva Burton and Olivia Ornelas as Harlequin and Columbine respectively, danced musically, looked lovely, but seemed too pliant, too human in these deceptively tricky roles in which they must be something they are not.

Wyatt McConville-McCoy, first as Drosselmeier’s nephew, then as the Nutcracker who becomes the Prince, is experienced in these roles; he and White and Trummel all opened last year’s run as well.  It showed in the clarity of everything he did on stage, from his none-too-subtle flirting with Marie at the party, to his swordplay with the Mouse King, to his mimed account for the Sugarplum Fairy of just how he and Marie arrived at the Kingdom of the Sweets.

Candace Bouchard leads the Snowflakes. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Candace Bouchard leads the Snowflakes. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Since OBT is now down to 21 professional dancers, and the rehearsal period for “Nutcracker” was shortened this year by at least a week, maybe more, I was concerned that the Waltz of the Snowflakes and the Waltz of the Flowers would not be up to the standard set in previous years: both are ensemble dances that call for neoclassical speed and precision, the former on a stage that is slick with artificial snow.  I needn’t have worried. The usual complement of 16 snowflakes – a mixture of seasoned company members, apprentices, and students, all of them led by soloist Candace Bouchard – danced up a snowstorm. (There was one hastily recovered fall, and I did miss the live choir we’ve had in the past.)  Martina Chavez and Makino Hayashi led the elegantly waltzing flowers, in their distractingly garish costumes, with lyrical élan.

Act II offered two extraordinary performances, one by Alison Roper as a transcendent Sugarplum Fairy, warm and tenderly maternal with the visiting children; regal in her command of the dancing sweets; delicately deploying her pointes in her solo variation; dancing her heart out to Tchaikowsky’s soul-stirring music, in the Grand Pas de Deux, Balanchine’s homage to the Russian imperial style of his youth. Brett Bauer’s considerate, strong partnering made him truly her Cavalier; a stumble in his variation is what happens to dancers who take risks, and in no way diminished his performance.

Alison Roper and Brett Bauer as Sugarplum and Cavalier. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Alison Roper and Brett Bauer as Sugarplum and Cavalier. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

As the Dewdrop Fairy, a role originally made for Tanaquil Le Clercq, Xuan Cheng (who seems roughly half Le Clercq’s height) rendered what is arguably the most difficult ballerina role Balanchine ever created with a joy in the dancing that is too often missing from otherwise technically fine performances. She made those unsupported balances and turns look easy, delighting in showing off what she could do, making it magical.  Chauncey Parson’s Candy Cane had much the same feeling, as did Ansa De Guchi’s  Marzipan Shepherdess.

Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, Mother Ginger, were all acceptably danced.  Haiyan Wu, that lovely Giselle, got stuck with Coffee, which calls for a kind of sexy balletic belly dancing,  She certainly did it well, but Roper, who also dances it, makes it bearable by sending it up, with a flick of her wrists at the conclusion.  This is one of several things in this “Nutcracker” I wish the Balanchine Foundation would let people change.  Tea was danced on Saturday afternoon with less cuteness than is usual by Jared Brunson, but it still makes me wince. And I wish, just once, or maybe even twice, the girls would win the tug of war against the boys in the party scene.  I also wouldn’t mind losing the angels who open the second act.

During the curtain calls, artistic director Kevin Irving gave due credit to ballet master and rehearsal director Lisa Kipp, who with the assistance of ballet master Jeffrey Stanton, children’s coach Gavin Larsen, and Drosselmeier (aka Kevin Poe)  does the hard, detailed work of getting this “Nutcracker” on stage. Given the cost-cutting measures taken by the company’s board, they all did one hell of a job.

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Eleven performances remain December 18-24.  For ticket and schedule details, click here.

3 Responses.

  1. Craig Trummel says:

    I hope you can see Collin perform as the Prince this season- a taller effort for him!

    • Craig Trummel says:

      Any of these performances work for you?
      12/15 at 7:30 pm
      12/18 at 7:30 pm
      12/20 at 2:00 pm
      12/21 at 7:30 pm

  2. Martha Ullman West says:

    I’m very sorry Mr. Trummel, but none of those performances work for me. Next year, perhaps? I’m sure he’s doing well as the Prince, sorry to miss him.

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