Pennsylvania Ballet - 'The Nutcracker'
Hits and Humbugs
by Lori Ibay
December 20, 2003 - 7pm & December 28, 2003 - 12pm -- Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Originally I thought I would skip "The Nutcracker" this year. The thought of confectionery dreams and less-than-thrilling choreography in a theater full of parents with restless children wasn’t appetizing to me. But, after hearing many infrequent ballet-goers tell me they were looking forward to seeing Pennsylvania Ballet’s "The Nutcracker" this holiday season, I changed my mind. Maybe I was being a Scrooge, or maybe I was missing something.
Pennsylvania Ballet’s 35th annual production of Balanchine’s "The Nutcracker" does manage to capture the holiday spirit, despite its shortcomings. The orchestra expertly played Tchaikovsky’s score (it is obvious the music is not new to them) with bouncy liveliness that often exceeded that of the dancers, especially on December 20th’s evening performance. Who wouldn’t be tired for the third performance of the day?
Act I’s cutesy party scene had standout performances by Jonathan Stiles (as the Soldier) showing excellent precision and control with clean turns and sharp edges. And David Krensing was a grand Herr Drosselmeier at the December 20th performance. Alexei Charov was a more playful and equally effective Drosselmeier on the 28th, and Charity Eagens and Jennifer Smith gave spirit and character to Harlequin and Columbine, the dancing dolls, at the second performance as well. Skyler Lubin was an impressive young Marie at the December 28 performance, with beautifully pointed toes that should serve as an example for the other children.
Marie’s moving bed, the transformation of the Stahlbaum’s living room into the Snow Scene, and the growing Christmas tree in Marie’s dream would have been more dramatic without the loudly creaking sets, but the sadly wrinkled trees that framed the Snow Scene were even more disappointing. Luckily, the lightly falling snow, the delightful dancing of the Snowflakes, and the exquisite voices of the Philadelphia Boys Choir diverted the attention from the sagging sets. The solid unison of the corps of sixteen women was especially notable in their echappé sur les pointes sequence, making up for the occasional misplaced arm here and there.
Act II’s curtain rose on a colorful, newly painted Land of the Sweets. On December 20, Arantxa Ochoa was a dainty Sugarplum Fairy, but was visibly relieved after completing her sequence of pirouettes. Tara Keating and Yosbel Delgado led Hot Chocolate with high lifts and much energy, and Riolama Lorenzo’s tremendous extension heated up the lukewarm choreography of Coffee. James Ady executed wonderfully centered pirouettes with Kacey Burke and Yurika Nakano in Tea, and Jonathan Stiles’ energy and acrobatics with his Candy Cane hoop drew warm applause from the audience.
Martha Chamberlain as Marzipan was slightly off-balance, but the steady ensemble moved in sweet synchrony around her. Alexei Charov stole the show as a hilarious Mother Ginger, powdering her face, kissing her reflection in her mirror, and even flirting with the audience. Amy Aldridge was a delightful Dewdrop, with quick feet and airy jumps, but was noticeably shaken when her foot caught on one of the Flowers’ skirts during her pirouettes, breaking up the flow of her turns. The Flowers were a lovely ensemble, obviously well-rehearsed.
Arantxa Ochoa returned with her Cavalier, Alexander Iziliaev, demonstrating exceptionally steady balance in their partnership, but both seeming somewhat fatigued by the end of the pas de deux. The performance ended with Marie and the Nutcracker sailing away across the sky in a Peter Pan-like boat; by this time, the children on stage were so ready for the performance to be over, they were having their own conversations during the final scene.
On December 28, Martha Chamberlain was a more energetic Sugarplum Fairy, especially in her partnering with James Ady. Ady again demonstrated perfectly centered pirouettes and powerful lifts. Heidi Cruz was stunning as Coffee, and Andre Vytoptov as Tea showed off exceptional jumping ability with amazing hang time. Edward Cieslak danced Candy Cane energetically, and Brian Debes as Mother Ginger was also pure comedy, beckoning applause from the audience and powdering her face, her armpits, and even her mirror. Valerie Amiss was a pristine Dewdrop, with the lovely unison of the Flowers supporting her.
Pennsylvania Ballet’s "The Nutcracker" is a long-standing tradition in Philadelphia, and the orchestra and dancers valiantly attempt to capture the spirit of the holidays year after year (no small task, especially for a third performance on the eighth day of the run). Although some creaky sets could be tweaked (and the Stahlbaums probably shouldn’t be getting flurries in their living room), great performances by the dancers add sparkle to the lackluster choreography. While I have no doubt that families will continue to see "The Nutcracker" during the holiday season, I only hope that those who are nuts for "Nutcracker" will also consider being dazzled by other performances in Pennsylvania Ballet’s continuing season.