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OBT's Balanchine Nutcracker

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#16 Helene



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Posted 28 December 2003 - 03:46 PM

Yesterday I borrowed a "Mommy Van" and drove with friends and their three children to Portland to see the matinee performance of Balanchine's The Nutcracker. I've seen scores of performances by NYCB, and while some of my expectations for the ballet were revived and shaken up after seeing Suzanne Farrell's company dance "Waltz of the Flowers," most were formed by several decades of watching one company perform, with few exceptions, the same version of the ballet. I thought that the only question would be whether the dancers and ensembles of OBT were up to the roles, but I had underestimated what a new production on the West Coast would mean. At NYCB nearly every dancer from the children to the principals has seen the production, often for decades, has grown up or is in the process of growing up in the ballet, and has a context for each role. That is not true for the OBT dancers, only three of whose bios list School of American Ballet, two of whom studied in the summer program. They may all have been familiar with the film version, but the way the shots were assembled doesn't give a sense of ensemble, especially during the multi-faceted first act.

It was a revelation to see details that have been blurred over the years in NYCB's production and smaller parts danced as if they were jewels. I was especially impressed with the Act I party scene ensemble, from children to adults. (Especially the latter, who acted like engaged adults, albeit light-hearted ones, not like dancers on contract duty.) Artur Sultanov and Tracy Taylor played Dr. and Frau Stahbaum as charismatic, but young and lighthearted parents who had a life beyong their children. They were helped by the costumes; the men in white tie and the women in dresses that could have been transplanted from a production of The Merry Widow had they been black, the opposite of Karinska's stodgy costumes for the adults. That they were cast for their obvious dramatic gifts -- he was awarded "Best Character Dancer" upon graduation from Vagaonova Academy and her attention to detail is probably a reason she's also a Rehearsal Assistant -- was a mark of a very fine eye and a commitment to the scene as unified drama. (Usually the roles are cast as an anonymous revolving door of dancers who usually portray the parents, with varying dramatic success.) Taylor was the hostess with eyes in the back of her head, aware of all of the goings on around, and the gestures she used to summon the maid to pick up the hobby horse was reflected in the Sugarplum Fairy's gesture summoning the angels in Act II; there wasn't a gratuitous movement in her performance. Kevin Poe's Drosselmeyer was a combination of dignity and enchantment. While I like the slow, short waltz that Dr. and Frau Stahlbaum dance alone at the end of the party scene in Kent Stowell's production, I had forgotten how effective the same part is in the Balanchine version, where Frau Stahlbaum and Drosselmeyer say goodbye with a tinge of bittersweet tenderness as Marie and the Nephew also part, and in Taylor's performance, the sophistication dropped for a moment as a beloved uncle was appreciated.

The Snowflakes Dance had a lot of energy and sweep. Without the dated 50's Karinska costumes, the Petipa backbone of the piece was clearer. This was remarkable, since the corps girls run the gamut of shapes and sizes and training background, yet they still managed a sense of stylistic unity and precision. The dance really cleared the palate for Act II.

Conductor Niel Deponte kept the tempos brisk but musical, and never loosing the arc and sweep of the music. Concertmaster Lorely Zgonc played the Act I solo passionately. The OBT orchestra played the score as a shining orchestral suite, even in the second-to-last performance of the season, and not as a prison sentence.

Ansa Deguchi as Columbine was one of the soloists who danced the role as a precious gift. Her movements were very clear and finished; her performance was very bright. Tracy Taylor also danced Hot Chocolate, a role that is usually the "warm-up" for the rest of Act II, and she transformed the dramatic impetus and detail in her mime role as Frau Stahbaum into a dancing role in the second. Gavin Larsen started well as the lead Marzipan Shepherdess, with light and clear phrasing, but she started to stumble a bit, losing articulation in her feet, and to favor one foot. Louis Phillipe Dionne in the short role as Tea was light and full, but his costumer hurt rather than helped. What set them apart from other soloists was the fullness of their movement through their performances. And the four "girl" polichinelles each looked like a little dancer, not just like a very talented student.

Before Act II there was an announcement hat Kathi Martuza, who had also been listed as a snowflake, would be replaced by McKenzie Fyfe as Coffee. Fyfe, who makes Wendy Whelan look zaftig, has looooong legs, which she used to fine effect to create images, but not shapes. Her performance was more light than sensuous. She was also helped by the costume, long pink harem pants.

Two of the male performances were disappointing, because both were danced small: Karl Vakili's Candy Cane, the least dynamic one I've ever seen, started out with an unusual lightness, but then just seemed to run out of steam. Paul DeStrooper invested Cavalier with fine mime moments, like his graciousness to the Sugarplum Fairy and to the children, and his landings were very light. But most of his dancing was not fully stretched and complete, and in places it almost looked marked.

I have mixed feelings about Yuka Iino's performance as Dewdrop. While she has terrific technique -- for example, in her fouettes, her thigh is at a 90 degree angle and fully turned out after the "whip" -- and a light style, there wasn't much weight to her performance. She really was like a drop of dew, a little flourish sitting delicately on the flowers. My first thought was that I was just used to tall dancers in the role, but checking the list, I found Heather Watts, Lisa Hess, Melinda Roy, Kelly Cass, and Margaret Tracey among the Dewdrops I've seen, and while none of them are tall dancers, they didn't dance like small dancers. And I'm comparing her to the "stage eaters" in Suzanne Farrell's Ballet, Bonnie Pickard and Shannon Parsely. Iino seemed happy enough to be dancing the role, but she didn't seem to be taking her place as the center of the dance, and she didn't seem to "need" to be there.

Alison Roper's Sugarplum Fairy started out very strong, with a beautifully articulated variation. She has superb feet, with a high arch, but since they are a bit "hoof-like" and she is very muscular, she looses a bit in length and line. (She also does supported pirouettes with her foot crossing her thigh above the knee, I position I don't like very much.) In the variation and the solo parts in the pdd coda, this wasn't an issue, because of her energy and clarity of movement. In the pas de deux and the reprise, this became more obvious. As she started the pas de deux, she could have been the poster child for presenting the foot, which never seemed to stop stretching. She also had wonderful amplitude in the supported developees that open the pdd, again always extending. But as it went on, she became more contained and she lost the sense of contraction and expansion in her phrasing.

I would love to see more of Roper, though, and hopefully she'll be cast prominently in the Facade/Duo Concertante/There Where She Loves/new Julia Adam ballet program in May 2004, because her high points were very high. And my friend Peter, who sees ballet only occasionally was entranced by the pas de deux; every half hour or so on the way back, he would wonder at the emotional tug it had for him.

Balanchine could use the "big" music counterintuitively, examples are when he gave the big, sweeping music from Raymonda and the second reprise of the theme in the fourth movement of Serenade to the corps couples. In the NYCB production during what I think is the most beautiful part of the score, the Nutcracker walks through the giant French doors at the back of the stage and gestures for Marie to follow, as the scenery sweeps away, the huge tree is lifted into the wings, and Marie is alone on the vast stage being moved around in her bed. When the forest appears, it seems to fill the stage quickly from all directions, a world first voided and then transformed. To me these have always been a moving images, but the scene didn't work so well at Keller Auditorium on this set. First, I don't even remember where the Nutcracker left, but it wasn't upstage center, and he wasn't the focus of attention. Second, the tree and the sets, while much more realistic-looking, weren't as dwarfing and kind of faded into the flies and wings. And at the end of the music the snow forest appears, it drops slowly from the flies. No magic at all.

The sets were rather dark, but I was happy not to see Ruben Ter-Arutunian's candyland confection on the sets for Act II. For a production done on the relative cheap, except for the transformation scenes in Act I, I was happier to see the money spent on the costumes. There were a lot of ideas and energy invested in their design, and in some dances, transformed the look of the dance for the better: costumes for the adults in Act I, snow flakes, harem pants and no ankle bells for Coffee, the cotton candy blue bodices turning to cotton candy pink tulle skirts for the Flowers, a lovely contrast in green for Dewdrop, beautiful light silks for the "Parisian" Shepherdesses instead of those hideous, fabric-less pink and yellow wire "tutus" over corsets that Karinska designed, and the lovely pink tutu for the Sugarplum Fairy. The dresses for the polichinelle girls were also very lovely and detailed. On the whole, the costumes enchanced the choreography, which is why when Farmer failed, it was all the more distressing.

It seems that Farmer found metalic fabric in copper -- the kind used so effectively by Karinska as underlayers for the skirts in Hot Chocolate -- and used it for the angels costumes, which were gaudy. The angels also wore wigs that I can only describe as long blond nightmare hair, tightly waved and about to frizz into Pirlipat hair at the first sign of humidity. Pretty scary. For some reason, the Candy Canes were dressed as French circus performers. Candy Cane was dressed in beige tights with rolls, and the little gymsuit-like bloomers on the corps were unfortunate: the girls were clearly in the teenage awkward stage, and they looked like they were in a local year-end dance recital. I think Farmer's biggest issue had to do with pants; the harem pants in Coffee were the exception that proved the rule. He doesn't seem to like them. While it does make some thematic sense to dress the Act I Soldier doll, the Nutcracker, the little Prince, and the Cavalier in tights, not pants, the Nutcracker/little Prince looked naked, especially during the battle and the mime scene in Act II. The stiffness of the soldier doll choreography was countered by seeing the preparation in the dancer's legs. The Candy Canes' legs needed to be covered. Unfortunately, the ones he designed for Tea -- billowing to the knee, then tapering -- obscured the dancer's line in the wonderful split jumps he does twice in the downstage right corner. But Farmer did give the mouse pants of a sort, albeit made of fur!

The company, stager Elyse Borne, and children's stager Darla Hoover really earned their stripes. I really look forward to seeing more of OBT.

#17 dancelyssa



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Posted 10 September 2004 - 12:37 PM

Um, I have performed in Balanchine's Nutcracker and probably will this year, and I have danced the role of a girl polichinelle. I like others just love the blue dresses and the striped silky capri like bloomers, the peach boy polichinelle outfits aren't as cute. I thought all candy canes wore the white pink-and-green striped outfits with bells?

#18 Mel Johnson

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Posted 10 September 2004 - 06:07 PM

If they're not using the Karinska costumes, then they could be dressed in anything.

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