First To None – A Review of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker
by Dean Speer
Having slipped away to play hooky from my own Nutcracker – a community production of SW Washington Dance Center in Chehalis/Centralia, Washington, I was doubly expectant and curious to see Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of the West Coast premiere of the Mr. Balanchine’s version. I had last seen this version during the Holidays of 1988, which was beautifully done by Atlanta Ballet. So it was nice to be reminded of the charms of this edition.
I earlier wrote about OBT to the effect that Artistic Director Christopher Stowell mounted a season that was making a bold and audacious statement about the future of the Company. This is certainly true of making the step to present George Balanchine’s version, originally done for the New York City Ballet in 1954. Lovingly staged by Elyse Borne with the children’s parts set by Darla Hoover, I found, as I like to say, that the evening was “Balm for my eyes.” and food my soul.
The Saturday, December 13th evening was, as near as I can tell, perfectly cast. Singling out individual performers, I thought Yuka Iino and Alison Roper could not have been better in their respective parts as Sugarplum Fairy and Dewdrop, with Karl Vakili as a sympathetic and excellent partner. Each got through the delicious yet tough choreographic assignments with very strong technique, skill, and aplomb. It’s tempting to say that each were the price of admission, which is true, but so were the larger production picture and especially the large, group dances – Snowflakes and Waltz of the Flowers.
Rehearsed on a daily basis since 3 November, this kind of drilling, diligence, persistence and hard work clearly paid off with the level of performance the ensemble gave to each. Make no mistake, the dual-edged sword of the Balanchine work (delicious and fun to do, yet can be challenging, yea hard) was clear in the patterns and steps. A total joy to watch - and thrilling. I was warmed down to my toes.
I’ve never thought of Mr. Balanchine as being “old-fashioned” yet he has but, particularly in the Waltz of the Flowers, some patterns and work that is best described as old-fashioned and filled with charm of its own. For example, at one point he has the single line of corps women break in half and each half, with the center person staying in place, and running either forward or back, making two circling, swirling lines. I loved it!
The only thing that I artistically disagree with in this version is the use of what I think and expect of for the music that begins the Snow Scene; a pas de deux for a Snow Queen and King. Instead, we get a lot of Marie on her bed traveling around with the Nutcracker Prince in the lead. Too late to ask Mr. Balanchine why or to change it, but I do miss seeing a duet at this juncture. I don’t mind the traveling bed being used as a dramatic device. Many versions have similar things, sometimes there musically, sometimes at the top of Act II. Never the less, I found it went on too long.
Rarely, if ever, have I been disappointed by Balanchine masterful and well-composed choreography but I suppose even the best has to bomb now and then. In this case for me, it was Arabian (Coffee). Beautifully danced by Tracy Taylor, but dull choreographically; it didn’t go anywhere. I found myself loosing interest. Might there be another version out there that Mr. Balanchine did?
Former PNB dancer Gavin Larsen has really come into her own at OBT. As the head Marzipan Shepherdess, she led her troupe with authority in this dance of pointes delights.
Conductor Neil Deponte expertly supported the dancers with an orchestra, while smaller than the usual, played very well. And what a treat is was to have a Children’s Choir for the Snow Scene!
I applaud Mr. Stowell and OBT in bringing this wonderful version to Northwest audiences.