American Ballet Theatre’s “Nutcracker” is back in Southern California for the third consecutive year, in Kevin McKenzie’s charming but oddly conceived production. The colorful sets and cutesy happenings of the party scene start the show off on a good foot, but once the actual ballet dancing begins (with a pas de deux for the Nutcracker and Clara after the battle scene, danced by petite adults in the ABT production) the choreography takes a turn for the worse and any semblance of a story gets thrown out the window. But, ABT’s dancers manage to sustain the evening with some valiant dancing that more than makes up for the production’s shortcomings.
On Thursday, December 18, Erica Cornejo and Craig Salstein were a sweet Clara and Nutcracker, with Corenjo as an especially endearing Clara who kept a lovable smile throughout the role’s busy technical challenges. Salstein showed impressive verve and bravely toted Clara around through the choreography’s constant, overly complicated lifting.
Monique Meunier was a fantastic and authoritative Snow Queen in the Waltz of the Snowflakes, making the most of her brief three minutes on stage. She showed an instinctive musicality, emphasizing the dramatic sweep of the Snowflakes music, while dominating the stage with a commanding stage presence.
Irina Dvorovenko was technically pristine but emotionally cold Sugar Plum Fairy; she impressed with her pliability and control, but was more like a placid porcelain doll in a role that requires a more stunning effect to make its mark. Genadi Saveliev was a sturdy and princely partner as Dvorovenko’s Cavalier, but did little to increase the pas de deux’s wattage.
The dancers push through McKenzie’s undistinguished choreography admirably; McKenzie choreographed most of this “Nutcracker,” except the Waltz of the Flowers, which was choreographed by John Meehan. McKenzie’s choreography is overly active, filled with complicated lifts, twists and turns that often keep the dancers rushing to complete the moves instead of actually dancing. Clara and the Nutcracker’s dancing in particular is mostly a lot of lifting and swinging around – so much swinging around that it often looks like the dancers are making mistakes even though it is just the quick moving choreography. Big dancers like the Waltz of the Snowflakes lack musicality or a sense of order. It’s a lot of jumbled dancing.
The dancers push through and make it work, however. In the end, great casting can put a smile on your face and make you walk away happy from this “Nutcracker.” Dvorovenko and Saveliev didn’t quite do it on the level I’ve seen in the past (Julie Kent and Angel Corella as Sugar Plum and the Cavalier last year come to mind as a particularly successful couple), but Meunier, Cornejo and Salstein did an admirable job.