Talking with some colleagues lately, it’s all “how are you going to write about Nutcracker this year?” I’m lucky, since it’s an anniversary year for this production I got to lead with a little history. We’ve been seeing this production for 30 years, and it’s such a staple that I’d forgotten it was something of a gamble at the beginning. It cost more than they’d budgeted, and the board was worried – could they just do the first act of the new production, and the second act of the Christensen version that they’d been doing? Yikes!
Now this production is a very well-oiled machine, both in the theater and in the lobby. Like most companies, PNB recognizes that this pulls a large audience that only comes to the theater a couple times a year, and in many cases has small children that get fidgety easily. They’ve worked hard to make the whole experience into a ‘special event’ for them – there are photo opportunities all over the lobby, with statues of Sendak’s designs, carolers, an exhibit from the local newspaper’s Nutcracker coloring contest, special snacks… It’s kind of a surprise by the time you get inside the auditorium and there’s a ballet too!
Sendak and Stowell tell the original story of Princess Pirlipat and the Mouse King a couple of times in the first act as well as showing it in the designs, so that by the time we get to the second act we ‘read’ the triangle (Clara/Nutcracker/Pasha) very easily. We see it with tiny kids in the prologue, and again with company members as part of a masked entertainment for children. The Pasha runs the second act, taking the part of the Mouse King (he’s the first act Drosselmeyer) so it really emphasizes those relationships. Stowell takes the ‘adult Clara’ route, and give her the SPF music – there’s no Sugar Plum. But he and Sendak break the traditional SPF pas de deux up into its separate parts, and insert them throughout the second act, so it doesn’t really build on itself.
One of the nicest things about Nutcracker is the opportunities it gives to the entire company. This year PNB performs the ballet 31 times, and though a run this long puts stress on everyone it does mean that many dancers get a chance to dance some substantial stuff. November 30 we were already getting substitutions (Margaret Mullin replacing Rachel Foster as Flora) – I’m hoping that they can keep injuries to a minimum since they’ve got Sleeping Beauty coming up after Nut closes.
Opening weekend I got to see Kaori Nakamura and Benjamin Griffiths in the main roles – they gave a very sweet performance. Nakamura was playful in the second act, and Griffiths was just lovely. The technical virtuosity in these roles is subtle – there are opportunities to do splendid things, but the choreography seems built to accommodate a variety of skill sets, which is really useful in a ballet that’s lasted this long and has been performed by so many different people. Nakamura tempered some of her sharpness for Clara, and translated it into attentiveness – she gave a lovely sense of paying attention to where she was. And Griffiths gave one of the purest mime passages I’ve seen here – I doubt there was a person in the audience who didn’t understand the sign language.
In the first act Leta Biasucci gave a very bouncy reading of the Ballerina doll and Matthew Renko is back – whatever trouble he had, seems to be past now – his Sword Dancer was crisp and sharp. In the second act that weekend, Lindsi Dec has made some real headway as the Peacock. This role, like the danse du ventre solo in Stowell’s production of Swan Lake, works best if the dancer does what could be fairly kitchy material very, very seriously. In the past, Dec’s default approach to most challenges was to deal with the physical challenges before the interpretation – she was uniformly sunny and cheerful. More recently, though, she’s brought much more shading to her work, and this really serves her here. She danced Peacock almost like a runway model – very glamorous. Kyle Davis was light and zippy in the Commedia, along with Biasucci and Liora Neuville. The two women are often matched in small groups – there’s a superficial physical resemblance, but they have a subtle difference in timing that makes unison a difficulty. I think what’s happening is that they approach the downbeat differently – Neuville will finesses the time after the “1,” usually with her arm gestures, so that there seems to be a little echo going on – Biasucci stresses the accent a bit more so that she seems faster than Neuville. They’re both lovely, but they’re not absolutely the same, which is fussy in unison material. Mullin had a small bobble in the fouette sequence as Flora, but managed to transform it into a spinny moment that worked just fine during the first weekend. (second weekend she had the same difficulty, but wasn’t able to make the save quite as deftly)
In the second weekend I saw William Lin-Yee as Drosselmeyer/Pasha – he’s newer to the part and the mime seemed very freshly-coached (he made the implied magic trick in the prologue of opening the Nutcracker curtain very clear). He plays both roles as a younger man: he pouts more when he feels Clara has rejected him, and he’s more active as the Pasha. Angelica Generosa was especially dizzy in her specialty roles – getting carried away with the thrill of it all as an aunt in the party scene and adding a special bobbleheaded bounce to the Commedia. Even when she’s just a party guest, she’s always very legible on stage. Carli Samuelson, Christian Poppe and Eric Hipolito Jr. did a lovely job as the mask dancers in the first act – it’s deceptively simple, since it’s primarily variations on tendu battement, but like most baroque dancing, it’s the simple steps that are the most exposed. Biasucci danced the adult Clara (not sure if this is a debut), along with James Moore. They’re a good fit as partners, and seem to move in and out of supported stuff easily. Moore gives a more weighted version of the mime, leaning into some of the gestures almost as if he was speaking slang. It was interesting to see that the mice retainers in the second act turned their backs on him when he “said” that he killed the Mouse King – a nice touch of loyalty. As Peacock, Emma Love Suddarth was clean and articulate, but not quite sensual enough – I have a feeling that’s something that comes with repetition in this role.
Both big ensemble dances (Snow and Flowers) are typical of Stowell’s approach to ¾ time – he rarely uses a standard balance in a standard timing. The downbeat shifts around while the general tempo is quick. Snow starts fast and seems to get faster – there’s a moment about 2/3 through where one dancer pauses momentarily and then whips her arms around her, almost as if she’s churning the air full of snowflakes, and everything kicks up a notch. (I saw Brittany Reid in this part – she seems to have a mischievous look on her face right then)
The final denouement in this version of Nutcracker is pretty swift – Clara missed the boat with the prince (literally!) and the Pasha reveals himself as Drosselmeyer, so that she goes racing offstage. The action shifts back to her bedroom where we see her wake up from what she thinks is a bad dream, shake it off and go right back to sleep so quickly that you could miss it if you weren’t looking. But it made me think of the line from Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, when Scrooge tells Marley’s Ghost that he doesn’t believe in him because he might just be “a piece of underdone potato.” So much for the spirit world!