There’s much to love in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, and in the way it is performed by Oregon Ballet Theatre. OBT opened its annual run at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, with live orchestra under the baton of Niel DePonte, and would that the orchestra were present at all performances. Even when the musicians play Tchaikowsky’s score less than perfectly, both they and the dancers, working together, make me see and hear new things in a ballet I’ve watched more times than I can count.
Balanchine wanted the children to look natural (actually he wanted all dancers to look natural, in this highly artificial form) and they definitely do in the party scene that begins the familiar story of Marie’s Christmas Eve dream. Johannes Gikas, as Fritz, Marie’s brother, misbehaved so easily, he made me wonder if he is something of a handful at home. Zaida Johnson, the afternoon’s Marie, thoroughly convinced me that she loved her basically hideous Nutcracker doll (injured by naughty Fritz) enough to risk that spooky Stahlbaum parlor to check on him after everyone else was in bed. Balanchine’s Marie is an activist, moreover, brave enough to save the Nutcracker Prince from certain death by flinging her shoe at the Mouse King during their duel, although on opening day she missed him by quite a bit. Possession of a lovely port de bras doesn’t necessarily also mean possession of a good pitching arm.
I love, always, and mostly because of the music, the first act’s “Grandfather Dance,” which is not dissimilar to a Virginia Reel, and is a multi-generational affair. Company artist Thomas Baker danced a wonderfully arthritic grandfather, partnering Samantha Baybado as a less convincingly ancient grandmother. Chauncey Parsons as Herr Drosselmeier, avuncular in the party scene when he presented the dancing dolls and the Nutcracker, and deliciously sinister as he sets the stage for Marie’s dream, proved himself as good a character dancer as he is a bravura technician.
En route to the Land of the Sweets, Marie and her Nutcracker Prince, in which the excellent Collin Trummel gives fresh touches to a role he could probably do in his sleep, pass through the Land of the Snow, wherein lies some of the most challenging dancing in the ballet. That’s because of the artificial snow, which can make the stage nearly as slippery as the real thing. I was particularly taken with the centered, expressive dancing of Sarah Griffin, a new company artist this year, but all sixteen dancers, some of whom are advanced students, stayed on their feet and stayed together in sparkling fashion, like real snowflakes, none of them looking precisely alike.
When Balanchine premiered his Nutcracker in 1954, New York Times critic John Martin complained that there was no real dancing in it, that it was nothing but mime and pageantry and spectacle, the very things that Mr. B. had stripped from classical ballet in such works as Four Temperaments and Symphony in C. The Waltz of the Snowflakes in fact is pure, plotless movement, it struck me on Saturday, and so is the Waltz of the Flowers. In some versions of this ballet it can be a boring repetition of Snow, albeit to different music. What saves it here is the Dewdrop Fairy, an invention of Balanchine’s, and a role he made originally for Tanaquil LeClercq, whose speed and chic and technical finesse were legendary. Candace Bouchard, a very different dancer, has made this role her own in the last couple of years, and on Saturday she really nailed it, dancing it with such musicality and delicate strength she managed to distract me from the garish backdrop and ditto tutus worn by the candied flowers. Lighting designer Michael Mazzola does his magical best each year to spotlight the dancing and obscure the set, but there is just so much that even he can do. I noticed this year that he had changed some of the lighting for the preamble to the party, suggesting, as does the music, the spookiness to come.
Balanchine loved acrobatics and had much enjoyed performing what was called the Hoop dance when he was a student at the Imperial School in St. Petersburg, so along with the mime that tells the Sugarplum Fairy how Marie and her Nutcracker Prince made it to the Kingdom of the Sweets, he included it intact in his twentieth-century version of the nineteenth-century classic. Jordan Kindell infused his performance of what’s now called Candy Cane with what I imagine is much the same infectious joy as the young Balanchine.
And when danced well, as it was on Saturday afternoon, by Xuan Cheng and Brian Simcoe, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier’s Grand Pas de Deux can certainly make the heart beat faster and the tears flow. Balanchine broke up this traditional pas de deux and got some flack for it, but Sugar Plum does her variation at the beginning of the second act, and I thought that, while Cheng plucked at the floor with her pointes with time-honored musicality, she was just a little too “look at me” presentational. That quality went away by the time she danced with the courtly Simcoe, who pulls off the technical tricks here with insouciance and ease.
What I find it increasingly difficult to love are the “national” divertissements of the second act. Hot Chocolate is OK, and Martina Chavez gave it some actual heat on Saturday afternoon; and the Marzipan Shepherdesses can be charming. But Coffee and Tea are really dated, and not in a good way. In the hootchy-kootchy Coffee, Makino Hayashi undulated on pointe as required, but I think took it sufficiently seriously to omit the satiric edge that Alison Roper used to give it, which for me at least makes it nearly bearable to watch. Tea, with its winsome Orientalist cuteness, usually makes me cringe, and my heart sank when I saw that Ye Li, who actually is Chinese, had been given the assignment. Li, however, omitted the head-tilting cuteness, jumping high and rapidly, but I couldn’t help wondering what he was thinking.
I was curious, too, to see what Colby Parsons, new to OBT this season, would do with the role of Mother Ginger; if he would camp it up the way others have, or play it relatively straight. He played it quite straight, and mostly got laughs when he brushed his teeth, logical after consuming all those sweets, but a bit of didacticism I hadn’t noticed before. That, since the Balanchine Trust is extremely picky about note-by-note, step-by-step fidelity to the master’s original, or more specifically, the version of the ballet set by the authorized répétiteurs, sent me scurrying through histories of this Nutcracker to see if that was part of the original choreography. Turns out Mr. B. did allow for some improvisation in this role, so it’s permissible. Why the Trust refuses permission to have the party girls win the tug of war against the party boys every now and then beats hell out of me. Kevin Irving asked, and was turned down flat.
Casting changes throughout the run: there are three new Sugar Plums this year: Bouchard, Eva Burton and Chavez, each of whom will put her own stamp on the role. That was encouraged by Balanchine, and he often adjusted the choreography for individual dancers. Absent the choreographer, it is the dancers, after all, with the help of their ballet masters (in this instance Lisa Kipp and Jeffrey Stanton), who at the end of the day are responsible for providing this Nutcracker much to love.
OBT’s “Nutcracker” continues at Keller Auditorium through Dec. 27. Some performances include live music, and others are performed to a recorded score; be sure to check the schedule. Ticket and schedule information are here.