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Dance Review: Oregon Ballet Theatre’s iteration of ‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®’ shines with Dani Rowe at the helm

The recently appointed artistic director brings a new sense of energy and magic to the familiar holiday classic.

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Charlotte Nash as Coffee in OBT's production of "George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®." Photo by James McGrew.
Charlotte Nash as Coffee in OBT’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®.” Photo by James McGrew.

Oregon Ballet Theatre is currently presenting its fast-paced rendition of the annual holiday favorite, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. The production opened on Friday, December 8 at the Keller Auditorium in downtown Portland, and will close on Saturday, December 24, with a special performance on Christmas Eve.

One of the only ballets to make its way into pop-culture consciousness throughout the years, it was originally choreographed in 1892 by Russian artists Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a musical score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

On the afternoon I attended, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s orchestra accompanied the dancers with OBT Orchestra Conductor Raúl Gómez-Rojas and violin soloist and Concertmaster Nelly Kovalev. As the orchestra warmed up, the quintessential OBT curtain shone red and gold, adorned with paintings of ballerinas, nutcrackers, and mice. After the first overture crescendoed, the curtain rose and Act I began.

This year’s rendition of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® shone as a bright success with newly appointed Artistic Director Dani Rowe at the helm. A former dancer with the Australian Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, and Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses, Rowe’s experience working closely with Jiří Kylián, Crystal Pite, Mats Ek, and the San Francisco Ballet has already shown its impact on OBT’s 2023 successful season opener of Swan Lake. This year’s The Nutcracker was, overall, far more triumphant than those of the past — filled with a new sense of energy and magic that delivered the viewer a childlike wonder we often seek from the ballet.

Oregon Ballet Theatre School's Mateo Espinoza as the Nutcracker Prince. Photo by James McGrew.
Oregon Ballet Theatre School’s Mateo Espinoza as the Nutcracker Prince. Photo by James McGrew.

With flattering lighting design by Michael Mazzola and dazzlingly detailed set and costume design by Peter Farmer, the audience was quickly transported into the realm of a winter fairytale. The evening started with the party scene, whose lush and inviting set filled the stage without dominating the sophisticated theatrical performances of the company members. Priyana Acharya glided with grace as Frau Stahlbaum while enjoying the party and looking after her children, played by Oregon Ballet Theatre School students Emmrie Boyce and Dorian Carabas. Herr Drosselmeier, however, set the scene. Portrayed by Michael Linsmeier, Drosselmeier danced with excellent nuance, depicting a warm and commanding presence; mischief alongside benevolence. The expertise in his acting and gestural expressions eloquently matched his smooth technique, allowing for the viewer to fall blissfully into the realism of the character.

As Act I continued, we saw Columbine and Harlequin danced by Juliette Ochoa and Leigh Goldberger, who seemed to struggle slightly with the established quickness of the Balanchine timing. Soon after, Nicholas Sakai wowed as the Soldier with his strong lines, solid turns, and fast-twitch strength, excellently mimicking the stature of a wooden toy while incorporating beauty in his presentation. The mouse costumes appeared cuter than ever this season, though the costumes themselves had not changed — therefore attributing the success of the mice to their execution of theatricality.

OBT dancers in "George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®." Photo by James McGrew.
OBT dancers in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®.” Photo by James McGrew.

Once the gently glittering snow began to fall on stage, it was time for the transition into the land of the sweets. While unison, particularly in larger pieces involving petite allegro, can still be a general struggle for OBT, the snowflakes did present a light and subtle sense of joy within their dancing. I tend to wonder if the stage is slippery when I see groups of corps dancers seem to minimize the extension of their movements, or whether the stage is too small. In this circumstance, I commend the performers for navigating across the piles of fallen snow while maintaining their composure.

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After a 25-minute-long intermission, Act II commenced with Kangmi Kim as the Sugar Plum Fairy against a gorgeous backdrop of green flowers and a billowing canopy of white and gold. Kim has been a company artist with OBT since 2021, and her lovely, subtle, and subdued performance was a distinct departure from Carly Wheaton’s past portrayals. In lieu of the bubbly and poppy energy typically expected of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Kim exhibited extreme control and balance — her form and technique clearly impeccable through execution of weightless arabesques and quiet changements.

Throughout the rest of the fanciful scenes of sweets, Lauren Flower stood out for her regal epaulement beside John-Paul Simoens in Hot Chocolate and Bailey Shaw excited the crowd with his exuberant solo as Candy Cane — where he shone with strong sautés, long lines, and delightfully extended feet with every swoosh of the candy hoop. Later, the beautiful Juliette Ochoa as the Marzipan Shepherdess landed her turns with ease.

Zuzu Metzler (center), surrounded by OBT dancers, dazzled as Dew Drop. Photo by James McGrew.
Zuzu Metzler (center), surrounded by OBT dancers, dazzled as Dew Drop. Photo by James McGrew.

In usual OBT fashion, Alexandre Gomes Barbosa brought the theatre to chuckles as Mother Ginger before Zuzu Metzler, a company artist since 2020, stole the show as Dew Drop. Her dancing was clear, controlled, and explosively energetic, making difficult technical feats appear easy. With great balance, impressive ballon (the ability to suspend in the air during jumps and hops), and ever-reaching arabesques, she dashed through the flowers with excitement.

The evening closed with Kangmi Kim and Benjamin Simoens as the Cavalier in a graceful pinnacle duet. Though an emotional connection between the characters was not necessarily visible to the viewer, the dance itself was well-executed, daring, and light. Simeons lifted Kim with ease, and proved his strength as a partner when assisting with turns and jumps. Kim threw herself into exemplary penches, arabesques, and attitudes with proficiency. Shortly after, the performance ended with the full-cast final goodbye as Clara and the Prince sailed off into the distance. Overall, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s rendition of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® delightfully reminded the audience of all the marvels and joy that the story has to offer, helping us remember we are all children at heart.

There are still seven more performances of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® on the calendar this week from Thursday, December 21 through a special matinee Christmas Eve performance on Sunday, December 24. For tickets and more informaiton, visit the Oregon Ballet Theatre website.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Amy Leona Havin is a poet, essayist, and arts journalist based in Portland, Oregon. She writes about language arts, dance, and film for Oregon ArtsWatch and is a staff writer with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her work has been published in San Diego Poetry Annual, HereIn Arts Journal, Humana Obscura, The Chronicle, and others. She has been an artist-in-residence at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, Archipelago Gallery, and Art/Lab, and was shortlisted for the Bridport International Creative Writing Prize in poetry. Havin holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Cornish College of the Arts and is the Artistic Director of Portland-based dance performance company, The Holding Project.

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