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7.12.12

Ballet West's 'Nutcracker'

Utah's Ballet West was invited to the Kennedy Center Opera House this year in the revolving series of December performances of The Nutcracker, and it was an easy choice for our December picks. After a musically disappointing return visit to the Washington Ballet's version of this holiday favorite this weekend, Miss Ionarts and I had high hopes for the Ballet West production, especially since Alastair Macaulay had written so glowingly of it in the New York Times a couple years ago. It turned out to be the version of The Nutcracker we have enjoyed the most.

With original choreography by William F. Christensen (created initially when he was at San Francisco Ballet), this version is billed as the oldest complete Nutcracker production in the United States. It is refreshingly traditional, hewing close to the details of Tchaikovsky's magical score: when the trumpets sound during the Christmas party scene, Fritz and the boys are running around blowing noisily on their toy trumpets (also, the overture is not given any choreography, a nice touch). The pretty storybook sets (designed by Ariel Baliff) are colorful, with a video effect of blowing snow added to the opening scenes, and a Dr. Seuss-bright Land of the Sweets in the second act, half Arabian harem and half Oh, the Places You'll Go!. The company trained a large cast of local children for these performances, and they all charmed, especially the tumbling polichinelles in the Mère Gigogne entrée of the divertissement. The costumes (David Heuvel) were handsome and just slightly old-fashioned.


Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, Ballet West’s ‘Nutcracker’: One to truly enjoy (Washington Post, December 6)

Heather Brady, Salt Lake City to Washington: America's oldest 'Nutcracker' pivots east (WTOP, December 5)

Kathy Adams, Ballet West heads for Kennedy Center with enlivened Nutcracker (Salt Lake Tribune, December 1)

Ellen Fagg Weist, Spin, Sugarplum, spin: It’s ‘Nutcracker’ season (Salt Lake Tribune, November 26)
Ballet West's current artistic director, Adam Sklute, reportedly restored some of Christensen's ideas to the choreography, which had been lost in the intervening years, embracing this version's retro vision, which packs a nostalgia-filled punch. The Nutcracker is about a little girl dreaming of growing up. For a father of a young daughter, who is taller with each year's new Nutcracker I take her to, it can be daunting and emotionally overpowering. Christensen takes the little girl's dreams quite seriously -- the terrors and the dreams of love, with a grown-up Prince (Owen Gaj). As Clara sleeps fitfully on a couch in the dream scene, her mind seems to replay the thrills and disappointments of the Christmas party, as the teasing children, her creepy godfather, and the delightful but slightly scary dancing bear that is one of the automated dolls all reappear in her mind. No dream is more important than the dream of dancing: the other automated doll that Drosselmeyer brings to the Christmas party is a dancing ballerina. When she arrives in the Land of Sweets, Clara is clad in a ballet costume like the Sugar Plum Fairy's.

Terence Kern led the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in a buoyant rendition of the score, slightly rough in patches but likely to improve by the end of the run. Something happened with the sound system at the start of the choral section of the snow scene, but the Lower School Singers from National Cathedral Schools sounded lovely when the sound was stabilized. All of the dancers were elegant and in good form, especially the Snow Queen of Haley Henderson Smith and her strong-armed Cavalier, Easton Smith -- a beautiful pairing. The lead pair, Christiana Bennett and Christopher Ruud, were a graceful Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, with outstanding character dances from the Arabian Dancers (led by Jacqueline Straughan and Ronnie Underwood) and the quintet of acrobatic Russian Dancers (led by Christopher Sellars).

This performance will be repeated, with different casts, through December 9, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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