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Ballet West - 'The Nutcracker'

First Nutcracker delights

by Dean Speer

December 3, 2004 -- Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City, Utah

When West Coast ballet patriarch Willam Christensen staged the first, full-length “Nutcracker” in the United States in 1944 for San Francisco Ballet, he probably couldn’t have guessed that the ballet would be so hysterically popular across the country 60 years later – although he himself is famously quoted as saying later that “Nutcracker” had become not popular but “an epidemic!”

I have seen his version, as well as his brother Lew’s many times, and it was a delight to see it again this year in the guise of the bon-bon production Ballet West gives to its audiences annually. It was also satisfying and heart-warming to see restored something that I missed when I last saw it a couple of years ago. They brought back the Dancing Bear to Act I – hooray!

I was a little surprised that they didn’t market and make more of the 60th anniversary of America’s “The Nutcracker,” and this, the 49th produced in Salt Lake. This production, as I recall Mr. C saying, is supposed to be what the story may be like through the eyes of a child and not an adult, as is often the case in many stagings. It’s full of charm and hot-chocolate warmth and sincerity, which gives it its loving appeal. It’s a production to be justly proud of.

Opening night casting was as near perfection as you can get and still remain on the planet. Of note were Victoria Lock and Nick Mullikin as the Doll and Dancing Bear (their duet together is a riot when they pretend to chasse each other, legs bent in attitude en arriere), the Nutcracker Prince in the guise of Ross Clarke; Jason Linsley as The Mouse King; and the elegant and appropriately regal Maggie Wright and Christopher Ruud as the Snow Queen and her Cavalier. Mr. C. has the Snow couple come in later than in other versions and it’s always a delight for me to see them appear as if out of nowhere, although it’s right there in the music. I thought the fog machine was maybe turned on a little too high as it really was pumping out that fog and so much so that during a set of supported turns, the fog actually lifted up and echoed the shape of Wright’s legs and tutu. Perhaps I detected the beginning of a hint of a smile on her face when this happened.

Long-time Ballet West member and now a balletmaster and character artist, Peter Christie, understands that Dr. Drosselmeyer is both and catalyst and glue that holds the story together. Every gesture had meaning and was clearly readable by the audience.

Act II featured Kristin Hakala and Hua Zhuang as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier; Mary Pat Rysdon as lead Spanish; Kate Crews with her endless legs and the dashing Jason Linsley in Arabian (we’ve long liked how she magically runs in for her bow from the opposite side of the stage from which she exited); Chinese Dance with Steven Davis; lead Mirliton Heather Thackeray and Alison Harvey, Sophia Priolo, Victoria Lock, and Josey Silva; Russian Dance was truly an authentic trepak (I believe staged by long-time character dance maestro and dance teacher, Yurek Lazowski) with the lively quintet of Du Hai backed up by Christopher Anderson, Nicholas Scott, Daniel Escudero, and Nick Mullikin; Aaron Orlowski as Mother Buffoon; and a Flower pas deux danced by Mellanie Heskett and Michael Bearden.

Mr. C. really knew how to put a large, group dance together and this is quite evident with the Snow corps dance and particularly with Flowers. Some Flowers versions waltz on for what seems forever, threatening to wilt right in front of everybody. Not so with this one. It’s visually fresh and sustains our interest throughout and seem shorter than it actually is.

And lastly, the Grand Pas de Deux, with Hakala and Zhuang, is always a highlight and they did not disappoint. The sustained balances, promenades and changes of direction were smooth. Their solos were neatly executed and the coda had the kind of bounce and choreography that I like seeing.

It was great hearing the rightly-famous score played at a reasonable tempo by the Utah Chamber Orchestra under the very able baton and watch of maestro David Van Alstyne.

Edited by Jeff.

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