NBT’S RETOUCHED NUTCRACKER
By: Hal de Becker
Nevada Ballet Theatre’s 2016 ‘Nutcracker’ at The Smith Center, choreographed by James Canfield, seemed to be a combination of last year’s version and the 2014 production. Some of the results were enhancing but the ballet’s strongest feature remained its sumptuous visual appeal.
On opening night there seemed to be a high pitched sensibility and excitement pervading the dancers and a special harmony between the other elements. Adult patrons seemed as much under the ballet’s spell as the children in the audience.
The plot is well known: At a family Christmas party young Clara receives a nutcracker doll and dreams it comes to life, saves her from evil rats and then takes her to a fantasy kingdom where she sees colorful dances.
The opening party celebration had an authentic look and, perhaps because there was more dance than mime, the adults’ acting had more spontaneity than usual. Groups of children and adults frequently danced together which not only added to the feeling of ‘family’ but also made for interesting patterns and circles.
Two down stage side panels had been moved inwards to slightly reducing the stage space. This was a good decision that helped the scene look more populated and avoided empty gaps.
The youngsters’ genuine joy in performing was palpable. All are students at NBT’s academy and, when required, danced in perfect unison. They were a credit to their teachers and to ballet mistress Tara Foy.
Some of the casting was questionable but in most instances the dancing was excellent. The 26 apprentices and trainees coalesced well with the 17 regular company members.
Emma McGirr as Clara had ample opportunity to display her dancing skills, acting ability and musicality. Her portrayal of Clara who is supposed to be, at most, in her early teens was persuasive.
Clara’s mysterious Godfather, Drosselmeyer, who entertains the children with two life sized dancing dolls was portrayed by Steven Goforth. His acting was natural and his movements gracefully dramatic.
His ankle length 18th century justaucorps jacket that he swirled like a cape, and his sleek black beard provided sinister touches to an already strong presence.
With effective staging Drosselmeyer appeared in almost every scene, sometimes prominently, but more often as a shadowy figure in the background controlling everyone like a puppet master.
Jun Tanabe and Kaori Fukui gave uniquely convincing robotic impersonations as the two dolls. Oslaniel Castillo as a Dancing Bear executed surprisingly difficult ballet steps despite the cumbersome bear costume.
David Hochberg was delightful as Clara’s Grandfather. By underplaying the occasional stiff back and memory lapses he made the portrayal human and humorous.
The scene depicting the battle between the come-to-life Nutcracker, danced by Morgan Stillman, and the rats began with a fascinating nightmare-ish episode with a spot light focused on each man-sized rodent as it made sharp angular movements within its own illuminated circle.
Unfortunately, the action gradually became jumbled and unclear and the scene’s early impact tapered off with no discernable resolution.
But the dancing of Christina Ghiardi as the Rat Queen compensated for any confusion. Wearing an abbreviated costume that allowed more dancing freedom than in the past, her superb technique and interpretative talents were given full rein.
Armed with a medieval flail, a metal ball hung from a chain, she made so formidable an opponent that, especially with the ill-defined ending, one wonders how she could possibly have been defeated.
The Snow Scene, with its dream-like setting, is still one of the ballet’s high points. Amid a flurry of snowflakes and bathed in soft blue starlight the ensemble’s fluid movements were a realization of the lyrical choreography.
Interwoven into the ensemble dancing was a romantic duet performed by Alissa Dale and Sergio Alvarez.
Occasionally, certain ballerinas reach a point in their careers when on stage they no longer need to think about turn-out, pointed toes, positions. They hear the music, the body takes over and they are free to devote themselves to nothing but art.
Dale may have reached that point. Her dancing in ‘Snow’ was so effortless it seemed as natural to her as walking across a room. She appeared as relaxed as if she were just listening to and enjoying the music, seemingly unaware of how exquisitely she was dancing.
Alvarez provided secure partnering although he struggled with some lifts, probably because he and Dale are not physically well matched: Dale is considerably taller. He’s a good turner with good elevation but has disconcertingly sloppy feet that flex during leaps.
Choreographically, the Waltz of the Flowers sometimes looked muddled and lacked visual clarity especially in the crisscrossing patterns. Although the dancers were generally good they appeared less spirited and lilting than previously.
The dancing of, Ghiardi, Michelle Meltzer and Katherine Zimmerman as Spring, Summer and Autumn fairies was excellent. Ghiardi, who always has an extra flash in her smile and dynamic in her movements, was a standout.
Choreography for the Sugar Plum Fairy solo was crisp and brightly accented, but Krista Baker’s dancing merely adequate.
Leading off the divertissement of national dances was the Spanish. It received a spirited rendering from Andrea Jensen, Rachel Thompson, Sergio Alvarez and Benjamin Tucker.
The red lighting was appropriate and effective.
When the Arabian was first introduced in Canfield’s earlier Nutcrackers it was a ‘show stopper’. The sensuous music and backdrop of heavy drapes, the creature half man half peacock being lowered in a cage to a woman below, created an exotic, alluringly decadent setting calling for at least a hint of eroticism in the dancing.
It was indifferently performed by Leigh Collins and Stephan Azulay both of whom seemed uncomfortable in their roles. Their performance had neither temperament nor maturity.
The Chinese was especially charming and well danced by David Hochberg, Betsy Lucas and Rode Krige. The delightful Mother Ginger number had some of her children concealed beneath her bountiful skirts while others danced around her.
Jun Tanabe in the Russian solo seemed to defy gravity. In a manege of steps circling the stage he’d leap into the air and at the peak of the jump, with his legs tucked under him, remain there to execute two turns before dropping back down to earth.
Sections of Tchaikovsky’s score for the final duet with Clara and Nutcracker contain some of the ballet’s most powerful and dramatic music. Unlike last season when high lifts and other stunning moves were choreographed to attune to that music, the recent version ignored it.
Although it was performed with feeling by McGirr and Stillman, it was just another pretty, one dimensional, dance instead of a varied and stunning counterpart to the glorious music.
The ballet’s rousing finale had the entire cast on stage as Clara soared across the sky on a rocking horse.
Peter Jackubowski’s masterful lighting seemed to have even more tonal shading than usual. Perhaps, that was the reason the colors of the fabulous costumes and scenery were especially vivid this year.
Forty members of the Las Vegas Philharmonic, under the baton of Jack Gaughan, provided concert level musical accompaniment.
There’s still time to see NBT’s Nutcracker. It runs through December 24th and makes a great Christmas present for friends and loved ones.