NUTS AND BOLTS
By: Hal de Becker
Photos by VIRGINIA TRUDEAU
To change is not always to improve.
Last year’s premier of Nevada Ballet Theatre’s $2 million production of The Nutcracker was spectacular but not without its weak points. Some were minor but at least one was pivotal: the choreography.
A recent Las Vegas Sun interview with the choreographer, NBT’s artistic director James Canfield, stated that the “revamped” 2014 production at The Smith Center would consist of “80 percent new choreography.” Maybe so, but to this reviewer on opening night it just looked as though one version of ordinary choreography had been exchanged for another.
Mr. Canfield appears to be more adept with dramatic contemporary ballets than pure classical ones. And his choreographic comfort zone doesn’t seem to extend beyond small groups. His larger ensembles in The Nutcracker lacked imaginative patterns, diversity of steps, and full utilization of available space.
His rendition of the story still followed the basic outline of traditional versions: little girl after Christmas party dreams she’s transported to enchanted land with handsome prince and treated to international entertainments. NBT added four fairies to the ballet to represent the changing seasons -- as did Walt Disney in his animated film masterpiece, Fantasia.
Although a synopsis of the plot was projected onto a screen before each Act, the performance of the simple storyline often seemed confused and disjointed.
Fortunately, the fabulous sets and equally fabulous costumes by Patricia Ruel and Sandra Woodall, respectively, were unchanged and provided a luscious feast for the eyes. And the dancers, many of them new to the company, were focused and energetic.
The Act I holiday party scene was the ballet’s weakest. There was little if any warmth, sentiment or humor. The battle, such as it was, between the toy soldiers and the rats was bland and the children from NBT’s academy mostly skipped around in circles instead of doing some real ballet steps of which they are capable.
Betsy Lucas supplied the best dancing traveling the stage from side to side with long passages of steps. Her stamina also impressed. She danced in nearly every scene of the ballet.
The life-sized, four-story replica of a child’s dollhouse was a stage-filling attraction but seemed incompatible with the real-life people and activities below it.
The adults’ costumes, including the ladies gowns, were dark, the men’s even black, and didn’t enliven what was supposed to be a festive occasion. From the program credits it appears that Ms. Woodall did not design them.
It was in the ‘Snow’ and ‘Fairyland’ scenes of Acts I and II that the décor and costumes were at their most dazzling.
‘Snow’ opened to a radiant blue backdrop upon which were suspended, amidst a flurry of snow, stars in the shapes of large snowflakes and a huge moon. The corps and soloists acquitted themselves well with the sometimes pretty though routine ensemble dances.
The exception to “routine” was the scene’s high point, a stunning duet performed by Alissa Dale and Steven Goforth. They made a handsome, well-matched couple and the choreography was flowing and often quite lovely.
Ms. Dale, trim and long-lined, danced with skill, lyricism and classical purity. Mr. Goforth displayed manly elegance, good presence and, except for floppy feet, good technique. The latter was distinguished by strong jumps and batterie (aerial crossings of the legs).
The ballet’s only other memorable dance, also for two, was the erotic Peacock number to music originally composed for the Arabian Dance. It was brilliantly interpreted and danced by Mary La Croix as the girl and James Cleary as the Peacock.
Not unlike the myth of Leda and the Swan, it portrayed a fantasy peacock that descends to the stage in a golden cage and with his train of exotic aquamarine colored feathers exerts mastery over the girl. As she surrenders to him his feathered train fans out and frames him in a burst of resplendent colors.
The idea, the performances and the choreography were all superb.
Since joining NBT, Ms. Dale and Ms. La Croix have performed leading roles in numerous classic, neo classic and contemporary ballets. Their recent performances as, respectively, Odette in Swan Lake and Juliet in Romeo and Juliet drew resounding acclaim and firmly established their artistic stature. Although not titled as such, they are the company’s de facto Principal Dancers – and deservedly so.
Act II’s Fairyland décor was both beautiful and menacing with delicate blossoms topping towering trees the trunks of which were formed by thick intertwined ropes. The set recalled illustrations from classic fairytale books as did the fairy-like creatures with long antennae, gossamer wings and tiny tutu’s encircling their hips.
The scene closed with the popular Waltz of the Flowers. The dancers gave their best with the humdrum choreography as did Ms. Lucas and Braeden Barnes in the adagio from the Grand Pas de Deux.
The music for the Adagio contained three powerful and exciting climatic peaks which were never matched with any similarly thrilling dance moves such as high lifts or multiple turns. Instead, Clara’s partner simply walked about carrying her in his arms like a sleeping child.
When the anticipation created by the music was left so unfulfilled a sense of emptiness pervaded the already tiresome choreography.
There were many elaborate flying and earthbound special effects but a minor one, Mother Ginger’s bulging skirt, had special charm. The skirt was constructed of large separate bouquets of flowers that, when pulled off by the children, became gaily colored parasols.
On opening night the orchestra, under the baton of Jack Gaughan, floated its share of sour notes playing the Tchaikovsky score. And in the early passages of the ‘Arabian’ the melody was unrecognizable. But more important for the dancers was tempo and that seemed fine throughout.
In the curtain calls, the 16 company dancers together with the apprentices and children looked like the proverbial ‘cast of thousands.’ It was nice to see the stage so full at the end.