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Los Angeles Ballet

'The Nutcracker

by Kathy Lee Scott

December 23, 2007 -- Royce Hall, Los Angeles, CA

As one of the last Nutcrackers before Christmas, Los Angeles Ballet danced its heart out for a full audience at the matinee performance on December 23, 2007, in Royce Hall's theater on the UCLA campus.

Artistic Directors Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary choreographed the traditional story, which they set in 1912 Los Angeles. Clara (Lilit Hogtanian) and Fritz (David Hiller) entertain themselves in a hallway before the Christmas Eve party their parents are hosting, she with her dolls (including Marie, the ballerina), he with wooden trains. Of course, he can't resist snatching Clara's doll from her right before the guests arrive.

Dressed in finery designed by Mikael Melbye, the guests mingled with each other while the girls gathered in a cluster separate from the boys. Neary and Christensen gave all the performers activities that filled the stage and held the audience's attention. Even the children in the audience were captivated.

The four servants (Erika Bandy, David Renaud, Brent Cannons and Bondy Owens) gave a saucy romp in which the men competed with each other while carrying trays of drinks. Clara's friends (Sophie Silna and Julia Golden-Telles) comforted her when Fritz tormented her. Fritz got his comeuppance when his parents gave him a tricycle as a present. He protests the gift, miming that he is too old for it. His parents (Colleen Neary and Adam Lüders) dismiss his complaint during the flurry over gift distribution and group dancing.

Hogtanian has strong pointe technique and performed her role exquisitely. One habit bothered me: her eyebrows were perpetually tragic looking. Clara's friend, Goldani-Telles, presented a prettier picture of a young adolescent with her sweet face and expression. It was a pleasure to see her again during the Russian dance.

Arrival of eccentric Uncle Drosselmeyer (Jonathan Sharp) invited a flurry of excitement among the children. His long, hooded fur coat seemed excessive on the one hand, but appropriate on the other, with his wide gestures and charming ways. Fritz tries to enlist his help in rejecting the tricycle but fails. Drosselmeyer rolls out the large grandfather clock and turns it on with a large key. He next brings out the Harlequin and Columbine dolls (Peter Snow and Nancy Richer), who dance their short pas de deux. The pair interacted well with each other, were precise in their movements but too fluid to be dolls.

Entrance of the Cossack doll was almost lost until the dramatic music began and Sergey Kheylik began whirling. The young man has spectacular extensions in the side jeté, but he seemed too concentrated on his execution to be having fun.

A bit of nepotism in casting: Erik Thordal-Christensen portrayed the Nutcracker. He enjoyed his role, especially in smacking Fritz in the face and collaborating with Clara in keeping his animation a secret from her brother. Clara is delighted with her live doll and goes to bed with him nestled against her bed.

Andrew Brader played the Mouse King broad and arrogant. He tries to catch Clara, but the Nutcracker jumps on his back. Thordal-Christensen and Neary gave the mice and soldiers specific actions, infusing the scene with energy and life. One mouse fought a soldier for the soldiers' flag. Others brought a stretcher on stage for a wounded mouse.

Clara tosses her shoe at the Mouse King to distract him and the Nutcracker shoves his sword through him. This Mouse King died simply and quickly. While the soldiers congratulate the Nutcracker on the kill, the mice wring their hands and cover their eyes. They carry off their dead leader, and the Nutcracker retrieves Clara's shoe.

Drosselmeyer returns to the stage, now in a snow-white, full-length hooded fur coat and white outfit. He leads the pair to a snowy scene where they mime a snowball fight before the Snowballs appear. Their white tutus resembled fluffy balls, and the girls danced well and with joy. At one point in the choreography, they flicked their fingers up with a musical chord to great effect.

When the Nutcracker and Clara sit in the sled, the Snowballs bouréed backward in a Y formation and off the stage: A beautiful sight.

For Act Two, the choreographers rearranged the dances a bit, moving the Sugar Plum/Marie and Prince pas de deux ahead of the Arabian and other specialty dances. They also eliminated the Reed Flute/Mirliton dance entirely.

Once the Nutcracker finished retelling the mouse fight, he and Clara sat on the seats of honor to watch the others perform for them. First up came the light and prancey pas de deux by Marie and her Prince (Sugar Plum in other productions).

Melissa Barak danced the Marie role, partnered by Darius Crenshaw. He was quite spectacular during his solo, landing softly and beating cleanly. After bringing her on with an overhead carry, Crenshaw had problems lifting Barak, although he otherwise partnered her well. For this part, the choreographers retained the traditional steps.  The standup collar on the red jacket Crenshaw wore obscured his neck, making him appear shorter than he was.  Barak's pointe work was precise and clean. Yet her interpretation didn’t inspire. That came from Corina Gill as the Arabian dancer.

Following the Spanish dancers (Monica Stephenson, Lucy Van Cleef and Andrew Brader), who gave decent but not spectacular performances, Damien Johnson brought Gill on and lowered her to her pointes. He was a strong partner for her and showed her off well. Gill's fluid moves mesmerized the audience such that she was all they saw. Johnson smoothly lifted her and carried her around. At one point, he had to move his head out of the way of her developé derriere foot; another, she shifted his supporting hand from her ribs to under her arm.

Harlequin and Columbine returned for the Chinese dance music, again interacting well. The Russian dance featured Kheylik as the high leaping dancer surrounded by three brightly dressed girls. Kheylik's stretched-out legs flew wide in split jetés, and his aerial cartwheel ending generated tumultuous applause.

Mother Ginger (Ann Haskins) was encased in the chimney of a gingerbread house from which the Hansels and Gretels emerged. Only one boy was among the Hansels; a couple of the wigged girls-playing-boys appeared unhappy with their roles, although they went through the movements surely.

Waltz of the Flowers gave Hogtanian a chance to dance, and she didn't disappoint. Her strong pointe work and secure fouetté arabesques were a joy to watch. The corps also enjoyed their important role in this piece, weaving and twirling to the delightful melody. All deserved the audience's appreciation.

Los Angeles Ballet transported at least two youngsters to their fairy-tale world: When the baby mouse (Helena Thordal-Christensen) pedaled the tricycle across the stage at the end and waved, the two girls waved back.

The year-old company has attracted competent and impressive dancers. Here's hoping it succeeds where others didn't in bringing Los Angeles its own ballet company.

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