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George Balanchine's Nutcracker at Keller Auditorium22 December 2013, Matinee


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#1 emilienne

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 07:44 AM

(A series of highly unpleasant events mean that I have a backlog of impressions that I need to write and post, if only for my own edification. I'm inflicting it on BA solely due to habit.

 

And of course, in the interest of maligning only the right dancers, I've had to go back and revise a few things. Watch this space for yet more idiocy.)

 

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Oregon Ballet Theatre

Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

22 December 2013

Orchestra Center, Row X, Seat 6

 

Without realizing it, Nutcrackers have snuck into my Christmas routine just as surely as have Chinese-food-and-a-movie. It was particularly welcome this year after a cross-continental move. The landscape changes, but by gum, the story won't, even if we can't decide if our heroine is Clara or Marie. I caught the Sunday matinee and was greeted by confused glances when I plunked my lonesome down between several populations of little girls and their adult attendants.

 

Oregon Ballet Theatre promised live music in select performances. Unfortunately Keller Auditorium is not ideal for music. The richness of tone suppresses any semblance of texture at any volume greater than piano, overexposes tuning problems in the brass, and turns the whole thing into soup by the time sound reaches the balconies. However, the conductor gave a brisk performance despite acoustic limitations, never falling into melodrama even when there were moments that threatened to dive headfirst into tubercular French novel territory.

 

This Nutcracker was rife with sartorial confusion and uneven in the quality of its dancing, all in all having a better time with the first act than with the second. Frau Stahlbaum's bustle and hobble skirt read as late Victorian (1880s) while her guests wore circular hooped styles from the early 1860s. Guests were comfortable enough to mix day and evening dress, enough that some came in dark plaids and calicos more suited for rough work.  On the fantastical side, the Kingdom of Sweets was rebranded as a Kingdom of Pastels, with a very pink Sugar Plum Fairy presiding over a menagerie of pretty but anonymous feature dancers, including Candy Cane in a photo negative of a Tron Legacy battle suit.

 

The children were the highlight here, having an excellent time playing with each other on stage under the eyes of indulgent parents. Marie (Jenny White) is clearly the queen bee of her social set, dolls included, and Noah Hug made me feel sorry for his Fritz. While he could be played as just a pest, Fritz wandered the stage looking lost, kitted out in an unusual peach-colored sailor suit among a sea of velvet suits. His mischief looked like that of a lonely little boy convinced that he could make a place for himself, if he ran at one fast enough.

 

In contrasts, the adults were a great deal less memorable. Luckily, the choreography provides sufficient detail so that they were not wholly homogenous. Drosselmeyer (Brett Bauer) was a benevolent guest who seemed determined to play down his mysteriousness. I wanted he and his cape to have more flair than dutifulness. Even the mice seemed similarly functional, sufficient to move Clara from the familiar to the fantastical with the smallest amount of dramatic impact needed to be seen under dim lighting. Granted, the dancers were likely very tired from a long performance season, but I wish the whole house sequence seemed less perfunctory. It shouldn't be just a placeholder until the good bits start.

 

Luckily, good triumphed over evil, and a beautifully turned out Nutcracker (Wyatt McConville-McCoy), and led Marie into the forest and the start of the "good" dancing. The Waltz of the Snowflakes is a sentimental favorite, and I have discounted many productions after seeing their treatment of this sequence. While the OBT is not a Balanchinean company, its corps de ballet responded beautifully to the choreography. Most of all, they looked like they enjoyed dancing it and were hungry for more of the same. This was the only place where I wished that the tempi could have been more dramatic (another 10-15 ticks on the metronome wouldn't have gone amiss), but for smaller favors, I would settle for a more human-like and less shrill choral sample.

 

Act II drags everyone into the Kingdom of Sweets, or in a desperate search for more appropriate descriptors, the Pastel Boudoir Kingdom Situated in an Enchanted Forest Glade. Given that this was Portland, I shouldn't be surprised that Clara and the Nutcracker weren't given sweets for feasting, but the odd costumes and sets seemed determined to break any mental connection between the plot in progress and Nutritionally Empty Items.

 

Some blurriness in the footwork was inevitable given that the company does not specialize in Balanchine, but in general the soloists danced them well. My only disappointment was Dewdrop (Xuan Cheng Haiyan Wu [Sorry for the incorrect attribution]), whose dancing shrank as the Waltz of the Flowers proceeded. Cheng had lovely clarity in her footwork, but it came in such tiny dancing that the effort seemed wasted. By contrast, Haiyan Wu, formerly with the Miami City Ballet, gave an orthodox interpretation of Coffee, though Exoticism in her costuming seemed to have been mostly transmuted into suggestions of Harem instead. It seemed too obvious a turn into blatant sexpot territory, and I was rather uncomfortable with it.

 

Luckily, the Sugar Plum Fairy (Ansa Deguchi) and her cavalier (Michael Linsmeier) rescued the fizzle with a truly grand pas de deux. It was perhaps not true to style, but I couldn't mind a slight detour into Ballet Russe ardor if the dancers were absolutely sincere in their dancing. Deguchi is a small woman, but on the shoulders of her cavalier, she glowed with loveliness and triumph as she whipped the entire auditorium into a screaming frenzy.

 

I staggered to the theater wondering whether the OBT could become my new "home" company. In December and even now, I'm glad that I went, but given my limited resources and my absolute need to see my "home company" (now on the opposite side of the country), I'm not likely to attend again unless multiple factors (read: ticket prices/dancing/sartorial decisions) improved. 


Edited by emilienne, 17 March 2014 - 04:18 PM.


#2 Jack Reed

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 03:35 PM

... The Waltz of the Snowflakes is a sentimental favorite, and I have discounted many productions after seeing their treatment of this sequence. While the OBT is not a Balanchinean company, its corps de ballet responded beautifully to the choreography. Most of all, they looked like they enjoyed dancing it and were hungry for more of the same. ...

 

It's good to read you again, emilienne.

 

OBT may not be a Balanchinean company, but as you tell it, it's capable of Balanchinean performance.  Beautiful, joyful, and hungry for more!  Your "sentiment" for the Snow scene is widely shared.

 

(Who coached this Nutcracker, by the way?)  

 

And the SPF's run-and-jump-onto-his-shoulder bit, whipping up an audience frenzy near the end of the adagio, while predating Mr. B., is just what's supposed to happen, too.  The reason why he used it, I think. 

 

Wondering whether OBT had any images up of the Nutcracker costumes you talk about, I found theirs requires membership in flickr or something, but http://www.orartswat...ballet-theatre/ currently links to a page which combines good images with ease of access.  (And there was Wu, familiar from MCB.  My bad, or misery loves company, or something.  Eek, what a mistake.  blushing.gif )

 

I sympathize with your sense of remoteness from Balanchinean performance (if I read you rightly). 


Edited by Jack Reed, 17 March 2014 - 05:46 PM.


#3 Jack Reed

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 03:38 PM

[Trying not to post an unintentional quotation - rather than an edit - of my above post, but our system requires I post something, not nothing.  Sorry.  Anyone who can, delete this, please.]



#4 emilienne

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 04:08 PM

(Who coached this Nutcracker, by the way?)  

 

 

The program indicates that the original was staged by Elyse Borne and Darla Hoover.

 

Sigh, looking back, I've realized that I had made a huge mistake in the casting. I'm going to have to go back and make a huge edit to the Anonymous Feature Dancers section. [Edit made, enjoy the idiocy.]



#5 sandik

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 09:25 PM

Until recently, Christopher Stowell  was the director at OBT, and his mother Francia Russell would often come to coach their Balanchine repertory.  Even though he's no longer heading the company, I think they still reflect some of that influence.



#6 emilienne

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Posted 17 March 2014 - 09:35 PM

Until recently, Christopher Stowell  was the director at OBT, and his mother Francia Russell would often come to coach their Balanchine repertory.  Even though he's no longer heading the company, I think they still reflect some of that influence.

 

Good point, sandik, but what I saw didn't look very orthodox (if there is an orthodox Balanchine besides when he's at church, ha, ha...yeah). The bulk of the programming now consists of modern repertory pieces or reduced classics, and the dancing for the most part reminds me of that bent. 

 

Nutcracker is not on my list for next season, but OBT is offering Agon on their first program. Between that and PNB offering Jewels — and I've never seen all three acts together in a theater! — offered in the same month, I may have to plan a cycling trip to see it all.



#7 emilienne

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Posted 28 March 2014 - 07:59 PM

I forgot to mention that the Tea variation in the OBT Nutcracker had been revised from "tea Chinese tea" to "tea Siamese tea", headdresses, flared shoulders, and all. The costuming is marginally more "authentic", but I'm not sure why the revision is deemed to be any less stereotypical than what had come before it.




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