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Oregon Ballet Theatre - 'Nutcracker'

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by Dean Speer

December 10, 2005 -- Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

One of the challenges of live theatre is keeping it fresh. This is true on both sides of the stage. When faced with a long running play -- perhaps on Broadway, performing eight or nine shows each week -- it can be potentially daunting to make each one as zippy as the first. But that’s the job of the performer and a lesson learned in stagecraft. In fact, you may have observed that with experienced performers and companies, the shows actually get tighter and more “seasoned” as the run goes along.

The same could safely be said for those of us on the other side of the curtain. If you have seen – or been in – dozens or hundreds of “Nutcrackers,” you know what I mean. For me, it’s a matter of both enjoying and welcoming the familiar, as well as looking for things I‘ve not seen before, whether  literally or simply seeing more in-depth, of enjoying dancers who are tackling roles for the first time, or of seeing a cast arrayed differently- a “Clara” taking on “Dew Drop” or a “Prince” delightfully mugging his way through “Herr Drosselmeier,” for example.

This was certainly true for me when viewing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s third foray into George Balanchine’s rightfully famous version of this chestnut. It’s a production that is become familiar, yet I still get a spark of pleasure and joy from seeing it. It’s also clear that Portland-area audiences are picking up on this as well. I was very happy to hear reports of houses selling well. It’s great when ticket sales snowball from year to year.

Some of the poetic joys of Balanchine’s version may be found in the large ensemble numbers such “Waltz of the Flowers” and the Snow Scene that concludes Act I. Also choreographically brilliant is “Mirlitons” – one of the best I’ve ever seen. Equally brilliant and up to the challenge of the choreography were Daniela Deloe with Ansa Deguchi, Cameron Giese, Mia Leimkuhler and Emily Tedesco. If you’re on the lookout for some great pointe work, this is the place to find it.

If I were to write a letter to Balanchine, I might lodge a complaint about the bed rolling around the stage during some of the most glorious music (this is where a Snow Queen and King pas de deux is often inserted in other versions). I’ll probably be writing this “letter to Santa” annually.

I might also lobby for more interesting choreography for the ”Arabian.” It starts out promising and ends well, but doesn’t really go anywhere. And in trying to analyze what bothers me about it, I conclude that it’s too “steppy.” She’s constantly making step, step, step, step. I just wanted to scream out, “Be still and do a développé!” It’s also very à terre – she never gets off the ground. The middle section could have been better built. I know he did a new version for Gloria Govrin in the mid ‘60s but don’t know whether or not this is that version. I hope not.. Gavin Larsen lent her considerable talents to this part. Technique- great. Interpretation- great. Her timing and musicality are impeccable. It is always a pleasure and treat to see an artist like Larsen who is in her prime.

New to this viewer this year were Allison Roper as the “Sugar Plum” and Yuka Iino as the “Dew Drop.” Roper is an Oregon phenomenon and artistic treasure. It was great seeing her in something that combines the opportunity to deploy her technical power and acting skills. (Yes, it requires “presence” too! If you’ve ever had to sit through a wooden, dull and boring Sugar Plum, as I have, you’ll be with me on this front.) Roper’s “Cavalier” was the tall and elegant new-kid-on-the-block, Ronnie Underwood. The beginning of the coda tantalized us with a brief glimpse of what he can do. We look forward to seeing more of Underwood. (My epistle to Balanchine would also include a note about his eliminating the solo for the “Cavalier,” who dances only the pas de deux proper and the coda that follows. Maybe Balanchine didn’t like 3/8 Tarantellas. Tsk, tsk.)

“Dew Drop” is a bright part that’s about sheer technique, displayed well with many setup entrances and diagonals, such as the one that’s stuck in my data bank of Nutcracker steps -- double sauté rond de jambe into a piqué arabesque – or even of Iino’s coming from upstage to down through two lines of “Flowers.” And what ”Flowers!”Their supple lines and poses and the speed at which they move through the kaleidoscope of these shapes and patterns was breathtaking and one of those nuggets that impels me to return for repeat viewings. I just LOVE it when they are in a single line and swoop the stage in a single turn, and then break into two lines and do the same, surprising us by finishing in one, big circle.

“Candy Canes” (aka, “Russian”) uses hula hoops, and the principal, newcomer Jon Drake, impresses by jumping through his swirling hoop. I find it interesting to note that the original cast member from the first 1954 New York City Ballet production is from the Northwest (Robert Barnett is from Wenatchee, Washington), so in a sense – and this may be a bit of a stretch – this production brings it back to the Northwest.

Music director and conductor Niel DePonte ably led the Oregon Ballet Theatre orchestra through the thicket of the Tchaikovsky score. OBT uses a small boys’ choir for the Snow Scene and this is a special treat as most groups use either orchestra only, or, as in the case of PNB, two female singers.

Artistic Director Christopher Stowell and his staff have done a good job of rehearsing and making this “Nutcracker” just about as fresh, spontaneous, and as exciting as it can be. I look forward to future visits and to seeing the old and the new – both of which make the “Nutcracker” journey southward from Seattle to Portland an annual, fresh event.

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