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OBT's Oregon Ballet Theatre - 'The Nutcracker'

Balanchine's Balm for the Eyes

by Dean Speer

December 13, 2003 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland

Having slipped away to play hooky from my own "Nutcracker" -- a community production of SW Washington Dance Center in Chehalis-Centralia, Washington -- I was doubly expectant and curious to see Oregon Ballet Theatreís production of the west coast premiere of the Mr. Balanchineís version. I had last seen this version during the holidays of 1988, beautifully done by Atlanta Ballet, so it was nice to be reminded of the charms of this edition.

I earlier wrote about OBT to the effect that Artistic Director Christopher Stowell mounted a season that was making a bold and audacious statement about the future of the company. This is certainly true of making the step to present George Balanchineís version, originally done for the New York City Ballet in 1954. Lovingly staged by Elyse Borne with the childrenís parts set by Darla Hoover, I found that the evening was, as I like to say, "balm for my eyes," and food for my soul.

The Saturday December 13th evening performance was, as near as I can tell, perfectly cast. Singling out individual performers, I thought Yuka Iino and Alison Roper could not have been better in their respective parts as Sugarplum Fairy and Dewdrop, with Karl Vakili as a sympathetic and excellent partner. Each got through the delicious yet tough choreographic assignments with very strong technique, skill, and aplomb. Itís tempting to say that each were the price of admission, which is true, but so were the larger production picture and especially the large group dances -- Snowflakes and Waltz of the Flowers.

Rehearsed on a daily basis since 3 November, this kind of drilling, diligence, persistence, and hard work clearly paid off with the level of performance the ensemble gave to each. Make no mistake, the dual-edged sword of the Balanchine work (delicious and fun to do, yet can be challenging, yea hard) was clear in the patterns and steps. A total joy to watch - and thrilling. I was warmed down to my toes.

Iíve never thought of Mr. Balanchine as being "old-fashioned" yet he has some patterns and work, particularly in the Waltz of the Flowers, that is best described as old-fashioned and filled with charm of its own. For example, at one point he has the single line of corps women break in half; each half, with the center person staying in place and running either forward or back, made two circling, swirling lines. I loved it!

The only thing that I artistically disagree with in this version is the use of what I think of and expect for the music that begins the Snow Scene -- a pas de deux for a Snow Queen and King. Instead, we get a lot of Marie on her bed traveling around with the Nutcracker Prince in the lead. Too late to ask Mr. Balanchine why, or to change it, but I do miss seeing a duet at this juncture. I donít mind the traveling bed being used as a dramatic device. Many versions have similar things, sometimes there musically, sometimes at the top of Act II. Nevertheless, I found it went on too long.

Rarely, if ever, have I been disappointed by Balanchineís masterful and well-composed choreography but I suppose even the best has to bomb now and then. In this case for me, it was Arabian (Coffee), beautifully danced by Tracy Taylor, but dull choreographically -- it
didnít go anywhere. I found myself losing interest. Might there be another version out there that Mr. Balanchine did?

Former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Gavin Larsen has really come into her own at OBT. As the head Marzipan Shepherdess, she led her troupe with authority in this dance of pointes delights.

Conductor Neil DePonte expertly supported the dancers with an orchestra which, while smaller than the usual, played very well. And what a treat is was to have a childrenís choir for the Snow Scene!

I applaud Mr. Stowell and OBT in bringing this wonderful version to Northwest audiences.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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