PPH Passing Strange

Review: Oregon Ballet Theatre brings Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® back to the stage with a sparkling rendition

Combining moments of dazzling dancing with whimsical costumes, vibrant sets, and Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, the ballet remains one of the most beloved holiday traditions.

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Oregon Ballet Theatre company and students in party scene from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® at Keller Auditorium. Photo by James McGrew.

Oregon Ballet Theatre is currently presenting its vibrant and fast-paced rendition of the annual holiday crowd favorite, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. The production opened on Saturday, December 10 at the Keller Auditorium in downtown Portland, and will close on Saturday, December 24, with a special noon performance on Christmas Eve.

Brian Simcoe as the Cavalier and Carly Wheaton as the Sugar Plum Fairy in OBT’s “Nutcracker,” continuing through December 24. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

When one hears the word “ballet”, especially if not indoctrinated into its complex and nuanced world of history, training, and etiquette, the first phrase out of their mouth is usually something along the lines of “Oh, I’ve seen The Nutcracker!” Originally choreographed in 1892 by Russian artists Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a musical score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the production has become one of the most notable, and some would say only, ballets to cross the seemingly impenetrable and invisible line into pop-culture consciousness.

Oregon Ballet Theatre School students as Polichinelles in “The Nutcracker.” Photo by Yi Yin.

From its glaringly vibrant sets, whimsical costumes, and fantastical storyline to its dramatic, agreeable, and frankly gorgeous musical accompaniment, it is easy to see why the two-act ballet is beloved by children and has been adapted by massive corporations including Disney and Mattel as a means to profit from this fascination. The Nutcracker, however, is more than just a quirky holiday tradition to endure, or yet another addition to “Barbie’s dreamhouse”. From the first Soldier’s Solo to the grand Waltz of the Flowers, the show is ripe with the requirement for pristine technique and sweeping displays of artistry that ballet fans have come to expect from other big ballets.

OBT company and students in the ballet’s finale. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

On the evening I attended, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s orchestra accompanied the dancers with Nelly Kovalev as Violin Soloist and Guest Conductor Raúl Gómez-Rojas at the helm. Their precise, yet effortless playing and beautiful cohesion were both breathtaking and steadfast through the show’s final note. Principal dancer Jessica Lind, who has been with the company since her apprenticeship in 2013, performed as the Dew Drop — finding herself immersed in Tchaikovsky’s score and playing gracefully in and out of the music’s embrace while adding the dynamism of her strong feet to a refreshingly expressive port de bras. With every appearance, Lind danced beyond her physicality, clearly performing to both the children and adults in the audience and enveloping the stage with her energy. Making simpler steps look daringly complex and the more challenging ones appear seamless, Lind presented an impeccable example of how diving into the technicality available within Balanchine’s Nutcracker adaptation can elevate it beyond its often sweet and benign reputation — and set herself apart as the star of the performance.

OBT student as the Prince. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Some of the choreography, however, presented and arranged with the Balanchine Trust® and in accordance with the Balanchine Style®, appeared tricky for the talented cast. From minor mishaps like dropping small props to more noticeable incidents such as abandoning pirouettes, wobbled balances, shaky lifts, jagged formations, and unsteady landings, the verve of the company cast felt lower than the standard at which they usually present, and I found myself wondering whether they were gassed out mid-run or struggling against a slippery floor.

OBT2 dancers Ruby Mae Lefebvre and Claire Donovan as Columbine and Harlequin. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Despite the moments of mishap, Oregon Ballet Theatre brought an overall luminous recitation of The Nutcracker to life, featuring many of the company’s young dancers from OBT II and students throughout the evening. Dancer Evelyn Stocks shone with curiosity in an endearing portrayal of Marie, using Balanchine’s simpler children’s choreography to her benefit with expressive facial gestures and epaulement. Opposite Marie and the rest of the regal partygoers from Act I, Brian Simcoe stole the scene with his delivery of Herr Drosselmeier, surely sparking as much wonder and mystery in the hearts of adults as well as children in the audience, with excellently exaggerated gesticulation and punctuated moments of humor.

Oregon Ballet Theatre School students as Marie and Fritz. Photo by James McGrew.

In Act II, Soloist Carly Wheaton dazzled as the delicate Marzipan Shepherdess, Company Artist Ben Youngstone pleased the crowd with his Candy Cane hoop petite allegro (with which he did the same earlier during his lively performance as the Soldier), and drag performer Poison Waters delivered the laughs during her 13th season as the carefree Mother Ginger. This year’s detailed sets, costumes, and sparkling snowfall by Peter Farmer, as well as fanciful lighting by Michael Mazzola, brought the whole evening together, leaving viewers on their feet in joy and celebration for the season.

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Carly Wheaton as the Sugarplum Fairy in OBT’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®” at the Keller Auditorium. Photo by Jingzi Zhao.

Tickets are still available for the last week of performances of OBT’s Nutcracker. You can purchase them and view the performance schedule through 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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