NBT’S NUTCRACKER DELIVERS, FINALLY
By: Hal de Becker
After two seasons of disappointing choreography and staging, confused storytelling, and questionable creative decisions Nevada Ballet Theatre’s re-vamped version of its Nutcracker ballet at The Smith Center finally gave the company a holiday production that looked worthy of its two million dollar price tag.
In past seasons it was the spectacular sets, costumes and special effects that deservedly drew praise -- and still do. But this time the ballet itself took center stage.
The once weak opening scene was one of the ballets strongest this year. The dull unpopulated gaps of the past were replaced by a stage filled with adults and children all with meaningful choreographic purpose.
The scene’s many entertaining adult dances and the children’s well staged skipping and running captured both the look and spirit of a joyous holiday party.
The huge four story open faced house that was formerly an overwhelming distraction was used more effectively this time. It was placed and lit in a way that allowed it to dominate the stage while members of the household were observed in their rooms preparing for the party. But when the guests arrived below and attention shifted to them, the dominance of the building was skillfully diminished.
Especially notable in the opening were Betsy Lucas as the little girl Clara, Braden Barnes as the Nucracker soldier, Steven Goforth Clara’s Father, David Hochberg her Grandfather and Ivan Ferguson the Dancing Bear.
In the first of two surprise castings the role of the mysterious Drosselmeyer was adroitly portrayed by James Canfield, NBT’s artistic director and choreographer of the ballet.
What had previously been a bland battle between an army of little rats and the Nutcracker’s soldiers was, this year, transformed into a surreal, almost scary episode.
The dark stage was illuminated by one spot light at a time, each revealing within it a large grotesque rodent. The soldiers were androgynously costumed in military hats and jerkins above long white skirts reminding us that Clara and the Nutcracker are really one, since he exists only in her dream. At least that’s the best reason I can think of for the skirts.
The highlight of Act I’s last scene, ‘Snow’, was a flowing, lyrical duet beautifully danced by Alissa Dale and Steven Goforth. Ms. Dale’s cool composure and ease of execution brought a poetic quality to her performance.
Mr. Goforth’s high leaps and clean batterie (aerial beating and crossing of the legs) matched his elegant partnering and princely manner.
These two artists make magic as a couple. In ballet such pairing is rare and requires, among other things, matched good looks and proportions, similar musicality and instinctive blending of lines from the tilt of heads to angles of arms, legs and even sight lines. Dale and Goforth have all that.
In an innovative choreographic move, Clara and Nutcracker danced briefly in this and every subsequent group dance. Their repeated presence was a thread linking them to the dream world and giving the ballet added continuity.
Christina Ghiardi was a standout as Spring Fairy. With her subtle musical phrasing and a charm that projected across the footlights she was a delight to watch.
The famous Waltz of the Flowers was a so-so segment in Mr. Canfield’s previous versions. This time, however, it was an eye filling dance with inventive groupings of ensemble and soloists interweaving to create appealing patterns. The choreography never lost contact with the lilting waltz music as it had in the past.
The dances of the Act II divertissement, instead of being storybook entertainment for Clara, were presented on their own, in concert form, which gave them an elevated distinction. And this season they were titled by name instead of by a number which, strangely, had been the case last year.
Mr. Hochberg, Kyle Wright, Miranda Hashemi and two apprentices were well received in the Russian dance as were Stephan Azulay, Michelle Metzer and Emma McGirr in the Chinese. The four dancers in the Spanish also drew a good ovation.
The second surprise casting was Steven Goforth as Mother Ginger. He’d just portrayed Clara’s father and Ms. Dale’s cavalier but as Mother Ginger ‘en travesty’ he had me fooled.
On opening night the usually exceptional Arabian was lack-luster and had none of its former implied eroticism. The descending golden bird cage carrying the male dancer was absent possibly due to technical problems. However, the fabulous aquamarine peacock-feather-train was still an effective audience pleaser.
Barrington Lohr was the male peacock and Mary lacroix the girl he masters (seduces?).
For some reason, Ms. Lacroix did not wear tights. While I certainly have no objection to attractive bare legs, tights do have a sleeker, smoother look on stage.
Krista Baker’s performance of the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy appeared labored. The fault lay with a repeat of last year’s tepid choreography which is at odds with the clipped, brightly accented music.
It was the same for the so-called Grand Pas de Deux. (“So-called” because it was just the adagio duet without solo variations or codas.) As in prior seasons, the ho hum choreography was unmusical, repetitious and unsuited to what could be considered the ballet’s grand finale.
Mr. Braden and Ms. Lucas as Nutcracker and little Clara danced well but neither has the presence or mature persona to fill a spot that calls for a ‘star turn’. And by wearing the same costumes they’d worn from the ballet’s beginning their chances of making a purely visual impact was nil.
Tchaikovsky’s music for the dance is dramatic and grandiose. Included are three powerful climatic peaks which beg for exciting lifts or turns or something, anything that reflects them. But Mr. Canfield apparently heard the music differently than it was written or played because it came and went with no choreographic response.
Under the baton of Jack Gaughan, members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic gave a superb, concert level rendering of the score. If the overall ballet hadn’t been as good as it was one could have closed their eyes and been fulfilled just listening.
At the ballet’s conclusion Clara was seen in her dream soaring home across the sky on horseback – a toy rocking horse, of course. It was a familiar but warm hearted and perfect ending for the endearing story.
But wait. In a recent interview with the Review Journal’s Carol Cling, Mr. Canfield promised a “wow moment” ending. So, on opening night, when the house lights came up and a flurry of shiny silver stringers floated down from the rafters I wondered if they were the promised ‘wow’.