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American Ballet Theatre - 'Nutcracker'

American Ballet Theatre Returns to Please and Puzzle

by Jeff Kuo

December 20, 2003 evening -- Segerstrom Hall, Costa Mesa, CA

The 2003 holiday season brought southern California audiences the third annual appearance of Kevin McKenzie’s "Nutcracker." This production which brings its unique (dare we call it 'peculiar') mix of tough-as-nails glamour and visions of a bourgeois utopia of childhood dreams/nightmares actually does grow on one. This is important, particularly when in recent years, local stages seem to have been progressively purged of dissident "Nutcrackers" -- where did Donald Byrd’s "Harlem Nutcracker" go? The Joffrey’s "American Nutcracker"? Viji Prakash's Bharatya Natyam "Nutcracker"? National Ballet of Guanzhou? Even the perennial Moscow Classical Ballet (i.e. the one with the Mouse Queen in a black vinyl catsuit) seems to be on the missing list. Whether you love the annual holiday treat -- or would rather get poked in the eye with a wooden stick before seeing (yet) another "Nutcracker" -- the McKenzie can show you why.

I am happy to see that Paul Kelley’s playful proscenium is back in action. Though it makes a less than endearing grinding erector-set noise, at least the balloon rises and descends again and the flower rotates. The band aid or athletic tape on the ballerina’s knee is gone, meaning no doubt she is off the sick list. The dancers look more comfortable with the production as well. Maria Riccetto makes a fine Clara -- outgoing, bubbly, and full of personality. Yet, Riccetto understands the nuances necessary in those productions where Clara is danced by a woman rather than a child -- the necessity to show the evolution from a candy-coated love for a toy of wood and paint to a chaste passion for the romantic soldierly figure of the Nutcracker Prince. Where other productions teeter on the brink of pedophilia (an 8-year-old Clara -- a 28 year-old Prince), McKenzie choreographs a beautifully realized pas de deux saturated with the amour proper -- hints of passion safely subordinated to the stately cadences of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score. Gennadi Saveliev danced the Nutcracker Hunk.

Even for those (and there are many) who don’t care for "Nutcracker," the ballet is simply too dense and there are too many unanswered questions to be bored. The Act I Party scene seems somehow richer this year with subtler interpretations of even the more secondary roles. I am intrigued by the role of the boorish guest, the man in the green smoking jacket. He drinks too much, kisses Mrs. Silverhouse’s arm too much, and even kisses and hugs one of the little girls in a way that in the 21st century could result in an anonymous call to Child Protective Services. On a happier note, the toy dolls, Unicorn Doll, Sugar Plum Doll, and Toy Soldier Doll, turn in invigorating solo variations. Were these in the original libretto of the 19th century "Nutcracker"? Or are they the choreographic remnants of ballets like "Die Puppenfee" of Christmases past? Anne Milewski was Unicorn Doll, Renata Pavam was Sugar Plum Doll, and Carlos Lopez was the hell-bent-for-leather Toy Soldier Doll. Lopez was impressive in his ability to unleash leaps and turns with what seemed the tiniest of preparations.

Before the Tree’s magical transformation, Riccetto’s Clara seemed more amused than frightened by the petit rats. A nice touch (even the term petit rats is a nod to ballet’s Parisian heritage). But with the advent of -- as I like to call them -- the ROUS (or, Rodents of Unusual Size, a term borrowed from Goldman’s novel/film, "The Princess Bride"), the Battle Scene benefited from their clowning and mugging. But, I must admit to being less convinced this year than last by John Meehan’s Waltz of the Snowflakes. Last year I thought this rendition of the blowing wind, snow drifts, and eddies was a fully realized alternative to the relentless (dare we say … fearful?) symmetry of the more traditional Snowflake choreography. But without the linear forms and the crystalline patterns of snow, the professional caliber of the corps is hidden -- their prized precision of movement and uniformity line. Monique Meunier was the Snow Queen with a particularly radiant face.

After the intermission, McKenzie brought us more wonders … or should I say, curiosities. In this curiously sanitized second act, children, for example, were purged along with such "Nutcracker" stalwarts as Marzipan and Mother Ginger (or, Candy Canes in some productions). The way the character dancers emerge from behind giant props (a large fan for Spanish, a desert tent for Arabian, a tea pot for Chinese, a Russian box for Russian, etc) not only makes a clever presentation but perhaps continues the ballet’s preoccupation with automatons (an archetype which underlines such ballets as "Pygmalion and Galatea," "Coppelia," "Die Puppenfee," "Petrouchka," etc). Particular favorites were Stella Abrera, slinky as usual, with Sascha Radetsky; and of course the Russians, Bo Busby, Eric Otto, Craig Salstein, and Luke Bitney. Russian's choreography looks like mush, but they give it their all.

An improvement over the Snowflake sequence, the corps de ballet look simply delicious in the Waltz of the Flowers. Fairies and Flowers preen and prance, promenade and parade … there are images of Balanchine’s "Midsummer Night’s Dream" and Stevenson’s "Cinderella" and even "Raymonda" (where Raymonda and Jean de Brienne lead the courtiers in a compact formation with short kicks). The Flowers and Grasshoppers are too numerous to list but the Fairies were Kristi Boone, Maria Bystrova, Yena Kang, Anna Liceica, and Renata Pavam.

As the Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier, Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes cut a swath through the ballet. Herrera’s dancing seems to have become more approachable even over the short time I have been watching ballet. Her virtuosity and technical polish haven’t diminished one iota, and the razor edge of her glamour is just as finely honed as always -- it's just that she seems less the balletic version of an übermensch and more a simply great dancer. In no small way is this due to Marcelo Gomes’ excellent and tireless partnering. Cheers and shouts from my neighbors in the audience greeted the big finish.

Though I’m still not sure that the McKenzie production meets all the expectations, psychological and ideological, of the holiday season, it still metes out pleasure and interest in abounding measure. My money is still on some of the local productions for the most satisfying product (Festival Ballet Theater’s show in Huntington Beach, for example) but as the last holdout of the big holiday ballets, American Ballet Theatre’s "Nutcracker" continues to be worth returning to year after year.

Charles Barker conducted the Pacific Symphony Orchestra.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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