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American Ballet Theater's 'Nutcracker'

Justin Souriau-Levine as Little Mouse in Alexei Ratmansky's The Nutcracker for American Ballet Theater (photo by Rosalie O'Connor)
One of the highlights of the year for Miss Ionarts is reviewing a new production of The Nutcracker. After taking in Septime Webre's Georgetown staging with the Washington Ballet, the sugar-sweet Balanchine version from the Pennsylvania Ballet, and the disappointing Moscow Ballet production, it was time to see Alexei Ratmansky's recently premiered production with American Ballet Theater, on tour at the Kennedy Center Opera House this week. It is an imaginative rethinking of the story, heavy on pantomime and charming vignettes, opening in the family kitchen where frantic preparations are under way for the Christmas party. Both the servants and the other residents of the house, an army of mice, are quite busy, the latter led by an adorable ragamuffin in a small mouse costume (on Thursday night, a boy with an appropriately musine name, Justin Souriau-Levine), who reappears throughout the ballet and effectively steals the show by his antics.

The central change to the story and characterization, akin to the recent adaptation from San Francisco Ballet, is to recast the Sugar Plum Fairy sequence for an adult "Princess" Clara and a grown Nutcracker prince. The older couple first appear moving in tandem with the younger pair and go on to act out the girl's dream of growing up and falling in love. Productions of this ballet tend to feel mainly aimed at either children or adults, and Ratmansky's seems to fall into the former category, emphasizing burlesque entertainment over more classical ballet sequences, seen in the addition of four male bees, for example, who buzz around the female corps in the Waltz of the Flowers. (Further illustrating the point, two of the company's dancers appeared on the satirical television show The Colbert Report on Wednesday night, sending up the ballet's pas de deux with the host prancing around in a suit jacket, tights, and prominent codpiece.) This is more shrewd calculation than anything else: for ABT, as for most companies, the slew of December Nutcracker performances is big business, as shown in a comprehensive article on the subject recently in the Wall Street Journal. This is a production that will charm children and adults, but the serious balletomane, hoping for more than a smattering of traditional choreography, may be disappointed. That group of people is not the sort a company depends on to fill the house in December, however, so this Nutcracker is likely to have a long and profitable run.

Other Reviews:

Sarah Kaufman, American Ballet Theatre’s ‘The Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center (Washington Post, December 10)
Mice and children overrun much of the choreography, with a mob of gift-hungry kids ruling the Christmas party in Act I, well coordinated but still wild. The solo dances are inventively conceived, like a jumpy, pointy Harlequin and Colombine pair of spring-activated toys (Craig Salstein and Gemma Bond) and a brightly costumed Turkish soldier (Luis Ribagorda). The beginning of the dream sequence is strikingly surreal, as the Christmas tree grows and becomes large set pieces in the wing and Clara observes much of the battle from an enormous chair in skewed perspective (sets and costumes by Richard Hudson). The orchestra was perhaps the best part of this production, a generally refined performance led by Ormsby Wilkins, with only the battle scene sounding a little helter-skelter in terms of ensemble. The moment when the children's chorus enters, at a crucial point in the snow scene, is one of the most magical in the score: sadly, it is frequently omitted, but here it was sung with pleasing innocence by an unseen combination of singers from the Norwood Middle School Choir, the National Cathedral Schools Lower School Singers, and Pilgrim Lutheran Church Junior Choir.

The mysterious Drosselmeyer retains some of his menacing qualities here (danced by Victor Barbee), involved in the action throughout, including having to rescue Clara and her prince when the snow scene darkens into a blizzard, threatening hypothermia to the exposed children. Ratmansky gives away most of his ideas for the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy right at the beginning of the second act, when all of the solo dancers appear on stage as a group. Most of these "solos" are really small group numbers: an acrobatic pair of Chinese dancers (Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin), a cocky sultan (Sascha Radetsky) and four concubines from his harem for the Arabian dance, a trio of bouncy Russian dancers. What should be the climax of the second act, the pas de deux for the grown Princess Clara and Nutcracker Prince (a fine Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes), is trivialized a bit by being linked to the charming child pair (Mikaela Kelly and Theodore Elliman), with too many cutesy and shy movements. At least here, in the Sugar Plum Fairy sequence, one hopes to have some classical ballet for adults, even in The Nutcracker.

The run of the American Ballet Theater's Nutcracker continues through Sunday, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

1 comment:

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