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Arizona Ballet's New Nutcracker

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This evening I got an up-close peak at Arizona Ballet’s new “Nutcracker,” and I have to tell you that it is a gorgeous production. In a recent interview with the Arizona Republic, Ib Anderson calls it the “Rich Man’s Nutcracker,” and I have to agree.

So that you’ll know what I mean, let me tell you just a little bit about a few of the children’s costumes. The children’s party costumes are reminiscent of European royalty of the second half of the 18th century – think Marie Antoinette and Louie XVI. The fabrics are modern, however, with yellows, golds, ochers, and other colors in iridescent silk.

The soldiers are of the same era, with maybe a touch more of Napoleon -- khaki jodpurs, riding boots (rather clever spats, actually) and red wool riding coats. My favorite detail is the royal crest on the hats – “IA” for, you guessed it – Ib Anderson.

The angels are impossibly beautiful. I’m reminded of a decoration I always loved as a girl: the angel draped in fabric, then sprayed with gold paint; it was usually about 10 inches tall. Well, these gold angels are life size. There is a petticoat with a lace-trimmed hoop skirt, covered by a gold dress, with a chiffon overdress with hood. The huge wings, rather cleverly fitted into the dresses (not going to tell you how), are made up of individual feathers of silk. The dresses, with these gossamer hoods framing the face, are absolutely flattering; each girl is a vision.

This is just a tease. I hope some of you are going to be there for opening night in a couple days. Looking forward to your comments and observations!

Here's a link to the Arizona Republic article:


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After a bit of a cold start, Paula Hartley and Astrit Zejnati as Sugarplum and her Cavalier found their groove Sunday night. Dancing to a near-full house on a Sunday evening, the two showed us the meaning of “chemistry.”

It is truly unfortunate that Phoenix has no Anna Kisselgoff to describe this new Nut for you. I wish you all could have seen it. The new sets, by Carey Wong and Ib Anderson (yes, Ib is credited: most of you probably know he is a visual artist in his own right), are such fun. While this Nut follows the traditional plotline, the scenery is quite a departure, beginning during the overture.

As the audience enters the theater, we see a curtain with a large-patterned snowflake design in blue, white, and silver. As the house lights dim and the overture begins, we appear to come close, then are taken through the streets of a traditional European village. A room begins to glow, and we can see inside! Why, it is Herr Drosselmeyer and his assistant, placing toys into a bag. We see them leave the shop.

This clever beginning is done with a projection onto a scrim. It works particularly well for today's young people, who have no experience in sitting quietly and listening to an overture, without any action or other visual.

Once inside the house, the drawing room could be part of the residence of a royal palace: beamed ceilings, a massive fireplace, an empire sofa. We see Clara, highlighted by a spot, her back to us as she looks outside through one of the huge arched windows at the back of the room. She makes a lovely picture, with the skirt of her costly pink silk dress spread over the cushions. Scarlett Scheiner as Clara did a nice job of acting, her irritation with Fritz seemed real.

Generally, I am no fan of the parents in the Nutcracker. Arizona Ballet’s previous production did nothing to improve my attitude, as I found it tedious and uninspired. In this production, however, the parents are delightful. There is an especially nice bit among the women – soon after the families have gathered, the women do a brief lively dance with one another, wine glasses in hand, toasting one another with enthusiasm and affection. The parents then dance with one another, forming lovely and interesting interweaving patterns. The little girls then take a turn around the floor with their fathers. All in all, charming, and a huge improvement.

Harlequin, Columbine and the Soldier make a grand appearance, inside giant glass and gold cases. This marks the first of two appearances of an inspired pairing: Kendra Mitchell and Robert Dekkers. These two are darling together, enjoying an infectious sense of fun and mischief, both here and later, as Chinese Tea. They clearly enjoy menacing Clara, as Drosselmeyer transforms the stage. And yes, you two rascals, we saw your nifty little flips into place during the bows, as Tea. I don’t know whether Mr. Anderson has always displayed a great sense of humor, and I missed it, or whether these two are themselves responsible for this gaity. In any event, their mighty fine dancing was no surprise, but their strong personalities were. Can’t wait to see them together in something with a little gravitas.

After the party ends and the Magic begins, the scenery takes a star turn. The room clears away, revealing a castle complete with drawbridge, stage left. Opposing the castle, at stage right, the fireplace flips around to reveal a giant mouse hole. The soldiers come marching through the castle, over the drawbridge. The backdrop is slighly abstracted giant wrapped presents, in bright pinks and purples. The tree has grown so huge, or we so small, as to dwarf us all. The soldiers have more dancing than previously, and are led by a 5-foot Nutcracker. This is an exciting battle scene and, again, a big improvement over the previous, rather ho-hum production.

The mice deserve special mention. Once again, a strong sense of humor was at play. The rats/mice did a great job of being convincingly creepy, as well as truly funny. The costumes cover their bodies and heads, with their legs and arms sticking out. Each rat has a long tail. Anderson has them first appear before the scenery is changed, hiding behind pillars and running on all fours up the stairs. Ick! Later, they continue to alternate between two legs and four, and even do some stylized tours-jetes in those getups.

The climax of the scene comes with the appearance of Dynomouse – the King of the Rats is some 9 feet tall, with an enormous bottom and a long, fat tail. His subjects are hilarious when he appears, first bowing down and then celebrating like football players in the end zone.

The audience loved the entire battle scene. I heard exclaiming all around me, and plenty of “Wows!” when the King Rat appeared. The audience was really into it, and went wild when he fell, after being stabbed by the Nutcracker. The rats were again quite entertaining, carrying on over the carcass.

Whoops! The Nutcracker body falls away to reveal the Prince, who has been encased inside. Hmmm. A little weird. The idea is nice, but the execution lacking. Then, a little technical difficulty with the sleigh. Once they were in it, Clara, the Prince, and the audience, too, enjoyed the vision of the aurora borealis.

Act II begins with the Angels, too, substantially reworked. This is best viewed from the balcony, where you look down onto the clouds, and the angels dancing in them. Very nice job from the “little” angels, who consistently glide, seemingly impossibly. The bigger girls are less consistent with this technique – a missed opportunity since, as we watch the glide, audience members get a wonderful flying feeling,. I liked the way Mr. Anderson had the little angels glide straight downstage towards the audience on the more music boxy portion of the section. Again, a charm that was previously missing. Big angels, also mostly students of the school, do a nice job with a spiraling turn that changes in speed and elevation to give a corkscrew effect.

There is a wonderful and surprising moment where the entire burgundy backdrop curtain drops away to reveal Sugarplum, sous-sous en pointe with arms en haut, in classic jewelry box style. The Prince mimes and dances his heroism.

Then we are finished with the children until Mother Ginger, and Snow begins. From this point, the choreography is mostly consistent with the previous production. My attention wandered just a bit during this section, as I find it pretty, but a tad monotonous. I was also irritated by the BANG of pointe shoes with the landing of the grandes jetes by the corps. This is not noticeable when the leaps are repeated later, because the music is louder. Perhaps there’s nothing to be done about it, as these ladies do need their support en pointe.

Natalia Magnicaballi makes a beautiful and regal snow queen. She and Michael Cook are a handsome pair. She is later mesmerizing as Arabian Coffee, well partnered by Joseph Cavanaugh. I last saw Giselle Doepker do a wonderful job with this role. As performed by these two, it is as sensuous as it should be, with some difficult technical requirements, including attitude derriere turns en plie.

In the role of Sugar Plum Fairy, Paula Hartley was the undisputed Queen of the Land of Sweets. This is a dancer who knows how to make her dancing exciting. Regal in bearing, she also simultaneously projects warmth and intimacy. Her technical command is a given, of course. Her lower body is rock solid, providing a foundation for her to use her chest, back, neck, and head expressively. Her smile is always lovely and she uses her eyes to connect with us and with her partner. With respect to musicality, Ms. Hartley has reached a new level. This was particularly evident in her Sugarplum solo: I had the curious feeling that it was she who was conducting the orchestra.

Astrit Zejnati is my favorite partner for Ms. Hartley. He was also a pleasure as in his solo, handling those huge, athletically demanding leaps with aplomb. Dancing together, they suddenly “clicked,” and it was obvious they both knew it and enjoyed it.

Spanish Chocolate was a trio, with two women and a man. Ginger Smith continues to stand out every time she puts a foot onstage. I’m tellin’ you – that girl’s gonna be a star.

Also a trio, this time of women, Marzipan dancers wore red-and-white candystiped (foam?), which was terrific to see spin. I’m still bothered by the timing on this piece. When it is not exactly right, it is unclear whether the dancers are supposed to be moving sequentially or not. When it is not exactly right, it just looks sloppy.

Russian Trepak was exciting as performed by Vitaly Breusenko and Mikolai Moroz, both Ukranians. The choreo was quite circusy, as it should be, , with big straddle jumps and -- not sure what these are actually called -- fouette tours en saute. (somebody help me out and let me know what these are actually called -- the leg action is that of a fouette, a whip to the outside like a fouette turn; but the take-off is that of a grand jete; the effect is to stop the jump in mid-air. )

The response to Mother Ginger’s “dress” nearly brought the house down. This is the most unusual of the costumes. I had wondered how it would be received, and was pleased to hear an, "Oh how cool," from the teenager behind me. There is no hoop skirt and no curtains. Instead, there is a brightly colored merry-go-round of a skirt, which looks as though it is made from colorful plastic. The Bon Bons are cleverly mounted onto the sides -- their bodies themselves a part of the skirt. The green Bon Bons (yes, their costumes are made of green foam, with accents of ribbon candy; the "tutu" portion has a big red heart in the middle of the back. Ha!) leap off the skirt and perform their dance. When they are finished, they jump back onto the sides of the skirt, where they each have a little ledge to stand on and rails to grab as Mother Ginger carries them off the stage. This night's audience enjoyed Sergei Perkowskii's mugging -- laughing and even cheering.

I think the Waltz of the Flowers was well done, but I’m not really sure, as I couldn’t take my eyes off Kanoko Imayoshi as Dew Drop. Dressed in the palest lilac, she was a nice contrast to the brighter flowers. Her gentle presence and radiant smile drew us in even before she danced, displaying an elegant line and easy, athletic jumps. And, what a beautiful figure. In her line, her charm, and her beauty, she reminded me, frankly, of Violette Verde.

Oh yes, the costumes were designed by Fabio Toblini; the lighting by Michael Korsch.

Whew! That’s enough out of me, dontcha think? A wonderful production, performed by a terrific and improving ensemble of dancers. I am disappointed that the Arizona Republic has not yet reviewed it. Since they didn't, that's why I've given you my own, for what it's worth. The paper did do a nice teaser, which I provided the link to previously -- that article did include a full-page photo of Magnicaballi, which was nice. But, gee, you'd think the Gala openning would have gotten some press, too!

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I want to thank you also, Arizona Native.

-- I appreciate your specificity!
Ditto! There are so many interesting variants on Nutcracker out there, that descriptions like yours are very helpful for visualizing comparisons.

Because of Anderson's position as one of the finest "sons of Balanchine" there is wide interest in what Arizona Ballet and its dancers are doing. I hope you'll continue reporting on future productions. (And that Helene will be able to add her impressions on flying trips to Phoenix for future programs this season.)

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Today I had the opportunity to again see AZ Ballet's Nutcracker. Coincidentally, it was the same cast I saw previously.

A correction -- the projection accompanying the overture begins with a close up of tree branches in winter bloom, white with a blue background (not snowflakes). Later, after visiting the village, we see these trees arching over a roadway, leading to a large lodge or home. Very pretty, as is so much in this production.

Once again, there was much to like. It was interesting seeing Natalia Magnicaballi both as Snow Queen and Arabian -- nice contrast required in the roles, and also in her partners: Michael Cook as Snow King, and Joseph Cavanaugh in Arabian. Cavanaugh was quite attentive and able. While Magnicaballi appeared to be aware only of herself early in her performance, later she and Cavanaugh appeared more emotionally connected. I continue to be disappointed in Mr. Cook, for whom I have had great hopes. As a partner, he struggles. While I do think the choreography is quite demanding, Mr. Cook appears too often to be running into place, hoping to get there before his partner does. He does not (yet) make his efforts dancerly.

Chinese Tea, with Kendra Mitchell and Robert Dekkers, was again charming. The audience was delighted, and enjoyed the show-off athleticism of these two. There are several partnered jumps where he throws her high into the air and she scissors out into the splits, taking it even higher (she looked 10 feet off the ground) -- bringing lots of exclamations of "oohs" and "ahhhs," and an "oh-my-god" from the woman in front of us. The two of them were right on the music, and their timing together was impeccable.

Oh Marzipan Girls, I am so grateful to you!! Tonight you worked with the music and drew it clearly. The choreographer's intent was finally apparant.

Also worth special mention in the improvement category -- Kenna Draxton. Ms. Draxton has stood out in the past, in part because of continuing awkwardness and stiffness in the shoulders and back. Tonight, as I watched Snowflakes, I thought, "Hey, where's Kenna?" She was blending in with the rest of the corps, in a very positive way. Her epaulment is much improved.

Once again, a rewarding performance from Paula Hartley, who gives so much. Tonight I was struck by her solid, yet weightless balances: by golly, she comes out, puts that foot down, extends that leg, does whatever, when she says so, that's when. Mr. Zejnati was a thoughtful partner and danced his own parts well, as usual. The audience was very appreciative of them both.

Seeing Ginger Smith in Spanish Chocolate, I was reminded that upper-level students at School of Arizona Ballet study flamenco. It shows. She knows how to use her back, her hands, and her eyes consistant with those stylistic demands. Incidentally, we are very much looking forward to seeing her tomorrow, in her debut as Sugar Plum.

The audience loved this performance, providing lots of response and encouragement. They shouted out their approval to the dancers, applauded the sets and costumes too, and laughed lots. Having been a season ticket holder for years, now, it is gratefying to be part of an audience that cares, and to have a company well worth caring about.

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Thanks again, AZN. One of the hardest things is to review the same ballet by the same cast twice within a short time. You distinguished the performances very nicely :) . It's gratifying to read that some of the dancers have improved over so short a time. Good going, BA!

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Once again, I had the pleasure of attending Ib Anderson’s new Nutcracker. With me were family members I would describe as somewhat educated ballet fans: one has been to Miami City Ballet from time-to-time, and the other worked as an usher so that she could see the ballet regularly. Their words, regarding Ginger Smith as Sugar Plum: “Every move was gorgeous,” and “You could tell she was the star.” So, you know it isn’t just me – I swear I had said absolutely nothing about the production or any member of the cast. And, I didn’t sit with my family, so I wasn’t giving any hints. Of course, as you know, I was looking forward to this performance, and seeing Ms. Smith in this role.

She was better than I had hoped. At just 21 or 22, she has mature stage presence, well-rounded technical skills (extensions, turns, balances, jumps), relates to her partner on stage, recognizes contrast in movement, and has a very personal style and sense of phrasing. Thanks to her interpretation, another of the people who went with us today, a musician, said, “I heard things in the music I had never noticed before.”

Her partner this afternoon was Ilyr Shtylla, one of the two Albanian men in the company (the other is Astrit Zejnati). He was quite nice as her partner, deft and present, and then impressive in his own right in his big solo. Among other things, after neatly handling the previous exhausting bravura jumps, including a full-stage diagonal enchainment, he threw in a huge split jump that ended on the knee. A happy surprise! His beats were clean and his jumps, grand.

Another man who did a good job tonight – Michael Cook, partnering Natalia Magnicaballi in both Snow and Arabian. Magnicaballi is a very strong, even dominating presence; Mr. Cook nonetheless did not fade into the background. There was none of the indecorous scrambling I have seen from him recently, either: he actually danced while partnering. The two of them are an excellently-proportioned match, and this performance gave me renewed hope that he might yet become a strong partner for her.

Lisbet Companioni is teeny-tiny, and was a fun choice for DewDrop, among the mostly larger flowers. The pale violet costume has a skirt a third the size of a classical tutu, which further served to contrast her with the flowers, whose ballet skirts are full and just below the knee.

Snow came together well, which allowed me to fully appreciate the beauty and design of those costumes, as well. The long-sleeved bodice is beige, with a full white tulle skirt falling below the knee, layered and textured to make it fluffy. The skirt and bodice are connected with white satin fabric cut in empire style at the top, stretching down in thin v’s to attach to the tulle. When they do their formations of grandes jetes, it does give the illusion of fluffy snowflakes, dancing in the air. The corps runs in circles, winding and unwinding, reminding us of the swirling patterns of snow created by the winter wind.

The audience adored the Prince and Clara, played by John Poppe and Carly Booth, giving them rousing applause at the end of the evening. These two are fine actors and emerging young dancers. It will be interesting seeing what their futures hold.

One last thing --- the mice/rats have continued to refine their parts, both individually and collectively. The ensemble work is now very strong, with more cohesive, coherant choreography. The audience looooooves them, as they are truly funny! The Mouse King -- Ian Poulos yesterday and today -- is now manipulating that huge costume ably -- swinging the huge bottom and tail to great effect, clearing the deck with them, so to speak, and getting the head to bob up and down, too.

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Thank you so much, Arizona Native, for your great reviews! Unfortunately, it's hard for me to get out of Seattle in December, but perhaps next year...

I'm so glad to hear that Ginger Smith was given the opportunity to dance Sugar Plum Fairy and that her performance was a triumph. Paola Hartley and Natalia Magnicaballi have had a lock on the major classical roles, and I was hoping there would be room for such a wonderfully talented dancer as Smith. She's such a lovely dancer.

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One last thing --- the mice/rats have continued to refine their parts, both individually and collectively. The ensemble work is now very strong, with more cohesive, coherant choreography. The audience looooooves them, as they are truly funny! The Mouse King -- Ian Poulos yesterday and today -- is now manipulating that huge costume ably -- swinging the huge bottom and tail to great effect, clearing the deck with them, so to speak, and getting the head to bob up and down, too.

Thanks AZN. I think I may now have figured out who you are, but still am not 100% sure. That costume has really been quite the challenge. I have become very close with it wearing it for sometimes almost an hour at a time and learning how to manipulate a 60lbs. plus costume hasn't been easy.

Again thanks for your continued support... :P

FYI... It's Poulis not Poulos. ;) I get that all the time. LOL~

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