I saw Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker
last week, and went home depressed, undecided as to whether I disliked the performances or the choreography. When my friends took me to this afternoon's (Thursday's) performance when an extra ticket materialized, I realized that it was neither: I had been simply exhausted after a long week and in a foul-tempered mood. It probably didn't help that at one point the woodwinds sounded so sour I thought they had interpolated a bit of Messaien in the middle of the Tchaikovsky. Nonetheless, there were three performances that intermittently took me out of my funk: Carrie Imler's luminous Flora (lead in "Waltz of the Flowers"), whose beats in the reprise were suspended in air, Daniel Melese's Fritz, and Laura Anne Wallace's Young Clara.
To give context to the performances of the young dancers, in Stowell's version of Nutcracker
, while Fritz can be a feisty boy, there is a pair of young children, called "Little Girl" and "Little Boy" in the cast list who do most of the overt fighting and teasing that Fritz and Clara enact in Balanchine's version. While there is sibling tension between the young teenaged Clara and her little brother, most of the stage action between them is ignited after Clara recoils from Drosselmeyer's greeting, and Drosselmeyer spends most of the rest of the party inciting Fritz to tease and attack her. Like nearly all of the relationships in Stowell's vision, there are parallels throughout that range from overt to just under the skin: Little Girl/Little Boy and Clara/Fritz. Princess Pirlipat/Nutcracker/Mouse King in the prologue and Masque performance at the party, Clara/Nutcracker/Mouse King and Clara/Nutcracker/Warrior Mouse in the fight scene, and Clara/Prince/Pasha in Act II, and Clara/Drosselmeyer and Clara/Pasha. So while Daniel Melese's Fritz was as frisky as any young boy when the action called for it, at the same time he was not out of character as a remarkably attentive partner to his mother in the Act I group dance -- and to his young partner in the Act II Toy Theater -- perhaps a Cavalier in the making.
Act I is a very long act for Young Clara, and in this production, she never has a moment when she isn't either in the center of the action, or reacting to the people and situation around her. Unlike the Adult Clara, who needs only one take on Pasha, Young Clara must, if out of nothing more than politeness, approach and re-approach the rather creepy Drosselmeyer, who has gone out of his way, with one exception -- to give her the Nutcracker Doll -- to ruin the party for her. And each time, she must interact with him and make her reaction fresh and real. Laura Anne Wallace did. I was sitting in the last row of the second tier boxes, yet her every expression and gesture reached the back of the auditorium. I honestly hadn't paid very close attention to the role or the young dancer portraying it in past years, but she made me sit up and take careful notice.
While most of the cast changed or cycled into different roles in this afternoon's performance, I was happy to see that Wallace was again cast as Young Clara. I was sitting in the eighth row this time, on the side in Gallery Upper. It was hard to imagine that a performance that had been so clear to the back of the house could remain natural so close up, but Wallace accomplished this, too. Although the dancing parts for Young Clara (and her two friends) aren't extended passages, it is a real dancing role, and she shone in dance as well as in her portrayal of Young Clara.
Wallace's adult counterpart was Jodie Thomas, whom Wallace resembled, which was a nice touch. Thomas' "awakening" in Act I through a pas de deux with Jonathan Poretta's Nutcracker-turned-prince embodied the building passion of the glorious music used for Marie's journey to the Land of Sweets in Balanchine's version. I think that when she is cast in classical roles that really move like this one, she shines bright, and while her shapes and movement are very clear, she also has good legato quality that makes her dancing seamless.
Porretta added a wonderful detail to his portrayal of the Prince: he too is transformed from being the Nutcracker in battle, and he used his face to express the realization that something monumental had happened, before he discovered Adult Clara and led her in the sweeping pas de deux. He did something similar in the beginning of the second act, which opens with Adult Clara and the Prince on a boat to Pasha's kingdom during the overture. In the beginning, the scene is very light-hearted, and Poretta has a high-wattage smile. As the music darkens, though, the waves and lighting become darker, and there's clearly a dangerous storm approaching. Clara becomes scared, and the typical reaction of the Prince is a series of somewhat exaggerated gestures and facial expressions -- "Hark, why, a dangerous storm approaches, what shall I do?" which can become awkward, because the passage isn't that short and the Prince becomes a bit boxed in dramatically. Porretta took a different approach: as the music darkened, so did his facial expression, and he had the dead-on stage instinct not to move at all at first, and let that expression say it all.
In Act I, Rachel Foster was a lovely Ballerina Doll, but I still am distracted by the amount of time she needs to stand still until she's "moved" offstage at the end of the party. James Moore was an elegant Sword Dancer. I'm always impressed by how the PNB men who dance this role don't try to turn it into Le Corsaire
. The Masque, set to the Mozartian pastorale from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades
, was beautifully danced by Kylee Kitchens, Taureen Green, and Josh Spell. The woman wears a dress below the knee and ballet slippers in this role, which focuses attention to the feet: Kitchen's were impeccably pointed, and she had lovely turnout in the numerous passes in the role.
The biggest surprise for me was Drosselmeyer. I didn't register who was performing when I glanced through the cast list before the performance, but from the moment he entered during the overture, I knew I had never seen him before: a handsome, calm figure with almost aristocratic carriage and none of the tics and eccentricities that are ubiquitous in the role. While during the party he didn't downplay the meanness with which he incites chaos among the boys, particularly Fritz, to get back at Clara, and he showed more of an eccentric side, he wasn't broad or caricaturish. The first thing I did when the curtain came up was to look at the program, and I found that it was soloist Oleg Gorboulev, who in Act II portrayed one of the most dignified, yet imposing, Pasha's I had ever seen. Often, the scariest and creepiest characters in dreams aren't the caricatures of evil, but the almost normal people who manage to convey menace.
In the beginning of Act II, I was able to confirm from her father that I had recognized my young friend Rhoya -- she played a Small Servant in both performances -- much to my relief!
The Moors were led by Rebecca Johnston and Karel Cruz, who danced beautifully and make a wonderful pairing. But what I want to know is, where did a girl born in Salt Lake City learn to shimmy like she does in the reprise?
I can't say enough good things about Maria Chapman's Peacock: every nuance and inflection, every extension and every phrase danced to perfection. She set the bar for the role.
The dervishes (Nicholas Ade, Brennan Boyer, James Moore) were brilliant. This has got to be one of the best and most foolproof virtuoso dances made for the stage -- I've never seen it fail or be performed less than well. Commedia was superb; Josh Spell had the Harlequin down pat, from head to toe, using his facial expressions especially well, and he was flanked by Kylee Kitchens' and Lindsi Dec well-matched Columbines.
Brittany Reid danced Flora. I've seen her excel in roles that are "demi-Principal" -- i.e., sometimes danced by Soloists, and sometimes by Principals -- but the way she blazed through this role and made it her own, combining sweep, musicality, and technique, building and building through each entrance, she danced not only like a Principal, but like a Ballerina. What a triumph.
This was a performance where I can only say
to the Company.