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National Ballet of Canada - 'The Nutcracker'

Colorizing a classic

by Michael Goldbarth

December 2004 -- Hummingbird Centre, Toronto, Canada

Skip dessert if you plan on seeing the National Ballet of Canada’s “The Nutcracker.” Its mischievous creator sprinkled sugar non-stop throughout his frosty Christmas confection, and then to top it all off, unscrewed the lid to your sugar shaker! You can pass on that after dinner latté as well. Its pastry chef poured eye candy all over his creation from a bottomless jar, then turned the blender on full speed, and of course, conveniently forgot to put the lid on! Welcome to James Kudelka’s new and improved “Nutcracker.”

Chef Boyardee Kudelka even provides an aperitif in the form of a delightful interactive preview for the kids. The show before the show starts 45 minutes before the main event in the lower lobby of the Hummingbird Centre. It stars two grown ups who never grew up as Misha and Marie. They actually encouraged the kids to interrupt as well as boo and give them the raspberry! During a playful spat, one precocious girl actually exclaimed: “STOP IT!” In addition to your souvenir Performance program, you also receive a Nutcracker Activity magazine – if you arrive early for the Ballet Talk.

Did you hear that? The Hummingbird’s warning bell is tolling for you to hurry to your seat. The curtain rises to reveal a rustic barn with a beautiful 19th century Russian country estate in the horizon. As an obvious tribute to music maker Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the star of the show is Peter the lowly stable boy who also doubles as the Nutcracker. Guillaume Côté dances a pas de deux with a broom as well as a duet with veteran character artist/ballet mistress Lorna Geddes (with the National since 1959). There is some comic interplay when Peter tries to give Baba a little dip ‘n’ lift. She immediately waves him off! If you look closely you’ll spot a bird feeder in the background. Very cute. What blue jay could resist visiting to partake in the nuts cracked from the National’s “Nutcracker”? What was that? Something scooted across the stage. It’s a rat so big; the NBoC must have imported him from Wall Street! Don’t worry, its Peter’s pet and he’s eventually caught.

Old man Drosselmeyer and his eye patch are ancient history! Kudelka pays homage to St. Nicholas, replacing him with Uncle Nikolai. Yes he’s a little nutty too but a good kind of nutty. Oranges magically poof out of thin air and he brings gifts galore for one and all: dancing bears (one en pointe, the other on roller blades) and a dancing mare. This is always great fun as I myself was fooled upon my first viewing. Don’t laugh, even the ears move! Too bad the National didn’t have enough dancers on hand to bring out the bears and mare for a well disserved ‘bravo’ at the end of the ballet. I have no doubt, if need be, the company’s coaching staff could teach real bears and horses to dance. Someone else who dances magnificently and a lot is Kevin Bowles as the Uncle. Unlike Drosselmeyer, this character moves: five cartwheels over the dinner table and one dizzying variation after another. You could almost envision Kudelka winding up Kevin Bowles with fiendish delight-like one of those old-fashioned wizzer spinning tops!

This is one time when colorizing a classic works. The antique Nutcrackers that come to mind for most Canadian fans are Celia Franca’s, which stood the test of time for 31 years, and the George Balanchine classic. Both of the above look like they were performed in black ‘n’ white compared to the symphony of vibrant Russian reds, glorious greens, nut-browns, and freshly fallen show whites courtesy of Santa Santo Loquasto’s master brush strokes. Stacked up to the Kudelkaized version, the others almost danced like a static painting. Kudelka’s “Nutcracker” moves throughout the 1st act. No monotonous dinner party – what we needed was a good old fashioned snowball fight to revitalize 112 years of history and that’s exactly what Kudelka gives us! Of course, the kids squabble throughout the 1st act and both Paul Calderone (as Misha no doubt named after Mikhail Baryshnikov) and Nyda Kwasowsky (Marie) had a full plate of real steps to dance and dance they did!!

Kaboom! You just got hit with a full load of streamers from the Canon Dolls (rotating local celebs)! It’s now 11:40 pm and we’re drifting off on a very sweet dream to the Kingdom of Sweets governed by the Sugar Plum Fairy. I think you know the story but if you don’t… As the clock strikes midnight, the Christmas tree magically comes to life filling the entire stage and so does the Nutcracker the kids fought over. Half a dozen mice scoot from underneath the kiddies beds. Misha and Marie fight off the evil Tsar of the mice and their beds transport them to a winter wonderland glittering with silver birches. I’m happy to report the battle scene was much more organized than that of previous seasons.

The Snow Queen (the lovely Tanya Howard) greets Misha and Marie supported by her two icicles (Keeichi Hirano and Avinoam Silverman). Once again, Kudelka reaches into his antique toy chest to play a little spin top unfurling a plethora of Spintastics Blizzards to whip up a swirling storm of snowflakes! Musical notes flow from Tanya Howard as she bourées across the stage and delivers one perfect mini jeté after another, her arms most expressive throughout. At one point she’s whisked off the stage in a spellbinding upside down lift. Here’s where I turn into a bit of a Grinch Critic. Kudelka’s Snow Scene lacks a grand finish. I missed the ultimate pièce de résistance of Balanchine’s ballerinas-pom-pom snow wands in hand-as the stage twinkles with heaven sent snow flakes. Intermission: Time to mingle and acquire an autograph if you wish from the two dancers at the Poster Shop.

Emerging from a Fabergé egg encrusted in gold we have our dream come true, the exquisitely winsome Heather Ogden. To the celestial tinkling of the harp and celesta, she glissades over the stage in a series of very precise piqué turns. Ogden’s sylphidine beauty left everyone starry-eyed; our imaginations of Sugar Plum Fairies having been fulfilled beyond our collective mind’s eye. The children tell the court of their mouse adventures, who reward them with the desserts of the ballet.

The first course is a blissful serving of chocolates. My favorite chocolate was danced by Louisa Rachedi. Every scene Rachedi appeared in her entire being beamed with delight. She truly danced with the spirit of Christmas in her heart. It’s quite an accomplishment to be noticed dancing from the corps de ballet. Bravo!

What’s chocolate without a sinfully delicious serving of coffee? The dancers perform a very daring and potentially disastrous pas de quatre touching hands whiles lifted high in the air. Not one drop of coffee was spilt. Stephanie Hutchison’s every move was delicious to the last sip. All four cups of coffee received a standing ovation at the end of the show in spite of a disappointing turnout. Perhaps the AWOLs stayed home to watch the finale of “The Apprentice”? Next up a serving of adorable lambs from the National Ballet School followed by a pas de deux between a sheep princess tailed by a fox.

Since it’s a night out for the kids, dinner follows dessert. The hilarious chicken chase gives new meaning to the term ‘free run!’ Mischief-maker Kudelka is back at work twirling dreidels on the stage along with a bee to melt away the snow. It’s best to sit above the stage in the mezzanine to see the blossoming of the waltzing flowers as the bumble bee pollinates spring.

You know you’re having a good time when it’s time for the Grand Pas de Deux between the Nutcracker & the Sugar Plum Fairy and you’ve lost your awareness of time. The evening is almost over. Both Ogden and Côté appeared to be very much in luv dancing the unnecessarily complicated movements to perfection. There were dazzling pirouettes, lifts and fish-dives galore. Mr. K needs to streamline his steps to move more seamlessly to the music. A few tiny leg and arm movements actually move against the score. Sometimes less is indeed MORE!

I loved the back dip by the Nutcracker to receive a smooch on the forehead by his Sugar Plum Fairy along with the touching of hands to each others hearts. I do wish Ogden’s Sugar Plum would smile a little less. Perhaps she was too worried about forgetting the above hyperbolic choreography?. Côté was the perfect partner displaying tremendous stage presence. The End: Misha and Mire have magically returned to their beds with the Nutcracker retiring to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Fabergé egg. Kudelka leaves one question unanswered. Which came first: The Sugar Plum Fairy or the Fabergé egg?

As to the answer to the $2,000,000 question – was the new and improved “Nutcracker” worth the money: it was worth every penny! Unfortunately, its very heavy moving bill (11 truckloads of sets) means that it can’t tour affordably. Perhaps the time has come for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to fulfill their mandate and broadcast this cherished chestnut! Fret not, this chestnut tastes so good, people will want to see the National Ballet of Canada dance the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky to life ‘live!’ “Nutcrackers” will come and go (even this one) but one thing will endure for eternity: the beautiful score. The music alone is worth the price of admission. There’s no better way to bring in Christmas for your child-and the child in you. Seasoned ballet fans will likely see it every other year or so to avoid the danger of macaroon overdose!

The biggest kid watching “The Nutcracker” will be none other than the choreographer. James Kudelka started dancing in “The Nutcracker” as a 10 year old student. Throughout his tenure at the National Ballet School under Betty Oliphant and at the National Ballet of Canada under Alexander Grant, Kudelka felt his creativity was being suffocated by the status quo. He explored this theme of imagination suppressed in “the contract.” Imagine a board meeting discussing the merits of totally revamping “The Nutcracker” under the old regime: Fat chance! You’d be reading about Celia Franca’s 40 year old holiday treat-which would taste as fresh as 40 year old Christmas fruitcake!

Every time “The Nutcracker” plays you can be assured the little child inside James Kudelka comes to life with cozy memories of his father’s farm in Newmarket, Ontario. It takes the mind’s eye of a child to create a ballet this good! As Kudelka clips out all the gushing reviews for his scrapbook, please forgive him for a little snicker or two as he grins from ear to ear! Revenge is sweet and I’m sure it will never taste this good! And the good thing is you get to share.

Edited by Jeff.

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