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Tooth-Rotting Children's 'Nutcracker'

Waltz of the Snowflakes, Nutcracker, Pennsylvania Ballet (photo by Paul Kolnik)
In addition to Septime Webre's Washington-specific Nutcracker for Washington Ballet, which Miss Ionarts and I attended last year, the Kennedy Center usually hosts a visiting company that mounts Tchaikovsky's evergreen Christmas-themed ballet. After the Joffrey Ballet's visit last December, it was the Pennsylvania Ballet's turn, giving a series of performances this week of George Balanchine's classic choreography (the one created for New York City Ballet and supposedly performed in Washington for the first time in this production) in the Kennedy Center Opera House. With so much of the ballet performed by children -- talented, well-coached child dancers, but still -- it is probably not a Nutcracker for a serious dance enthusiast, but Nutcracker is not really about serious dance for most people in the audience. Judging by the reaction of Miss Ionarts, who is my constant companion for this sort of event, at last night's performance it is an excellent option for a child viewer.

The production has broad, colorful set backdrops and numerous special effects, including a couch and bed that glide about by themselves, a flying ship, and a little moving toe plate on which the Sugar Plum Fairy floats en pointe. Herr Drosselmaier (Maximilien Baud) is a more menacing figure than in other versions, stealing back into the house while Marie (Clara) is asleep. One factor that shifts this staging toward the children is the decision to cast the Prince (Nutcracker) as a child, the poised and sunny Peter Weil, who appears first as Drosselmeier's nephew at the party, returning later in Marie's dream. This approach had its physical limitations especially in the battle with the Mouse King (Nicolas Sipes) and his forces. The corps de ballet shone strongest in its lovely, unified women as the Snowflakes (Act I) and the Flowers (Act II), with strong solo performances from the Sugar Plum Fairy of Arantxa Ochoa, Meredith Reffner's curving, long-legged Coffee (the Arabian dancer -- the Chinese dancers' scene is called Tea), and the Mirlitons of Abigail Mentzer and colleagues (called the Marzipan Shepherdesses).

Other Articles:

Sarah Kaufman, With this 'Nutcracker,' the magic is in the music (Washington Post, November 26)

Jean Battey Lewis, 'Nutcracker's' zestful magic sparks season (Washington Times, November 26)

Ellen Dunkel, Notching several firsts in the capital (Philadelphia Inquirer, November 27)
Where this production definitely trumped the Washington Ballet, at least as heard last year, was in the musical performance, with many details of Tchaikovsky's luminous and complex score sparkling in their best light. This was especially true of the children's chorus in the Waltz of the Snowflakes, which is omitted in some versions (including several I have witnessed) -- but there it is in on the page, a two-part chorus of trebles voices, indicated by Tchaikovsky to be hidden if sung by women or on stage by children (the Norwood Middle School Choir was piped in and added some lovely sounds). Balanchine added a scene in the first act, after the guests leave the house when we see Marie, fallen asleep on a couch, covered in a blanket by her mother. The music played at this point is an entr'acte composed originally by Tchaikovsky for the second act of Sleeping Beauty, with an extended violin solo, whose complicated passages were played admirably on Friday night. Miss Ionarts and I were also surprised to see the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy almost at the beginning of the second act, another example of Balanchine's reordering of the ballet.

Three performances of Pennsylvania Ballet's production of Balanchine's Nutcracker remain at the Kennedy Center Opera House, today at 1:30 and 7:30 pm and tomorrow at 1:30 pm.

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