American Repertory Ballet
Princeton, New Jersey
November 30, 2013
New Brunswick, New Jersey
December 21, 2013
-- by Jerry Hochman
How does one measure a ballet performance’s success? Certainly by the creativity of the choreography, the quality of the production, and the execution by the dancers. But a measure of a performance’s success is also its ability to connect with and be appreciated by its audience. And when a company’s performance ‘connects’ with an audience the way American Repertory Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker” connected with its New Brunswick audience last Saturday, as I’ll describe more fully below, it demonstrates that ‘bigger’ is not necessarily ‘better’.
Celebrating its Fiftieth Annual Nutcracker presentation, ARB danced its evolving (and apparently final – at least for awhile) incarnation of “The Nutcracker” at multiple venues in New Jersey over the past four weeks. I saw two performances: at the McCarter Theater in Princeton on November 30th, and at the State Theater in New Brunswick on December 21st (the second performance of the day at each site).
The production was first presented in 1964, choreographed by company founders Audree and Bud Estey, and over time ARB has updated and revised the ballet's choreography, costumes, and sets, the most recent of which, a growing Christmas Tree, was unveiled this year. And while ARB cannot possibly present a production of “The Nutcracker” with the bells and whistles and polished execution of the nationally renowned companies up the road, the current production is convincingly magical in its own right, and what it lacks in budget and size it makes up for in sensitivity and enthusiasm.
Of equal impact to the production values were the performances of the dancers, both the professionals in the company, company apprentices, and the young dancers from its affiliated Princeton Ballet School. Generally, and within the parameters of reasonable expectations, each dancer performed to, or better than, his or her capabilities. Which is not intended as some backhanded compliment – on the whole, they executed very well. But more importantly, they also communicated their enthusiasm well.
The story is your standard Nutcracker, but there are essential choreographic differences as well as unique stylistic details that make this production in many ways more comfortable and homespun than others: a grandma’s apple pie kind of Nutcracker. The Christmas Eve party at the Silverhaus home (no explanation for ‘Silverhaus’ rather than ‘Stahlbaum’) is relatively unexceptional, but I found the ‘conversion’ from the Silverhaus living room to Clara’s dream to be inventively done, and the battle scene to be exceptionally well-staged and executed – particularly the ‘marching band’ patterning for the soldiers. The choreography for the party and battle scenes is attributed to the company founders, but program notes indicate that the scenes were restaged by Artistic Director Douglas Martin in 2010, and restaged this year by Sherry Alban, a teacher and choreographer at the school.
The ‘candles’ on the Christmas Tree that dominates the Silverhaus living room area are lit by Herr Silverhaus individually, candle by candle, as must have been the case before electricity and Christmas tree lights. Nifty. The maid (nanny) uses her saliva to tame Fritz’s hair, sneezes upon sniffing gifted flowers, and is pursued by a lecherous guest – all (and other such details) taking place off center stage, and unseen by most one-time viewers. Delicious attention to detail. And after the nutcracker ‘doll’ is damaged by Clara’s brother, Drosselmeyer dabs tears from Clara’s eyes – and then bandages the Nutcracker with the same ‘tear-stained’ handkerchief. Super sweet. Regardless of the production’s other virtues, this one breathtakingly simple idiosyncratic image (I don’t recall seeing it in other productions) epitomizes the gentle tenor of this production.
However, this “Nutcracker” comes into its own after the Party and Battle scenes: in the ‘Snowflake’ dance, which is led by the Snowflake King and Queen, and the dances in the Land of the Sweets in Act II, all of which were choreographed by Mr. Martin (except for the Marzipan Dance and the dance for the Polchinelles, which are credited to company Ballet Master Mary Barton). Among these dances, each of which is similar to, but at the same time different from, dances to the same music in other productions (and each of which is well staged and executed), the Spanish Dance is particularly noteworthy. It’s usually a weak sister – an effort to be a reasonably authentic recreation of a Spanish style, but not much more. Here, the Spanish Dance is a dynamic highlight.
But what makes this production is its spirit and infectious energy level. And while the spirited execution was common to both performances, and the performance in Princeton was well-danced and obviously appreciated, the performance in New Brunswick, which featured a live orchestra (the ARB Orchestra, led by conductor Michael Pratt, ARB’s Music Advisor and a member of the Princeton University music faculty), live singing by the Princeton Girlchoir – and a quintessentially ‘live’ audience— was on another level, one performers dream about, and that even frequent viewers like me rarely see.
There was a continuing flow of energy between the audience and the dancers that grew in intensity as the performance progressed, where each participating unit was fueled by the other. I heard ooohs and aaahs and hoots and whistles and appreciative applause at various points through Act I (nothing inappropriate or impolite) – but this was just the tip of the mutual admiration iceberg. In Act II, the audience became a part of the production, rhythmically clapping to the beat of the Tchaikovsky score (enthusiastically, rather than robotically), beginning with the Chinese Dance, and continuing through Candy Canes and the Polchinelles. The audience gave the dancers a shot of adrenalin, and the pumped-up dancers returned the favor, giving their performances an extra dose of energy and sprit, which in turn prompted yet more enthusiastic clapping. The synergy was extraordinary. The culminating dances for Dew Drop Fairy and the Flowers, and for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, were greeted with open-mouth gasps – particularly when the Sugar Plum Fairy executed a string of double fouettes, which many had never before seen, and her Cavalier pulled tricks out of his hat that many in the audience had never envisioned.
In all the ARB Nutcracker performances, ARB Company members rotated in the lead and featured roles. At the November 30 performance, Karen Leslie Moscato and Alexander Dutko danced a crisply-executed Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, as did Shaye Firer and Marc St. Pierre on December 21. Mr. Dutko is one of the company’s most capable dancers, and he performed with facility and enthusiasm. Ms. Moscato danced very well, exhibiting the strengths that she showed in her Juliet earlier this year, but appeared somewhat monochromatic in contrast to Mr. Dutko. Ms. Firer danced a particularly strong Sugar Plum Fairy (and tossed off the double fouettes to near perfection), but given my observations of Ms. Firer previously, this was not unexpected. Mr. St. Pierre, however, was a surprise –he partnered Ms. Firer securely, and although he looked as if he was going to blow every jump and twist and turn in his solo, pulled them all out cleanly. On the 30th, Ms. Firer danced an exuberant Dew Drop, with Claire van Bever somewhat more subdued on the 21st. At each occasion, the corps of apprentices and PBS students sparkled.
On the 30th, Monica Giragosian danced the Snow Queen, a role assumed by Samantha Gullace on the 21st. Ms. Giragosian was a bundle of energy – a little flyaway, but with obvious enthusiasm. Ms. Gullace was more controlled, but punctuated the end of each musical phrase with an unnecessary and distracting open-mouthed exclamation. Edward Urwin was the Snow King at both performances, partnering well at both, but appearing more comfortable on the 21st. As the lead Spanish dancer, Ms. van Bever danced very well on the 30th, but Ms. Giragosian played her abundant energy to advantage on the 21st, delivering a performance both in character and exhilarating to watch. As the lead Arabian dancer, Ms. Gullace on the 30th and Nanako Yamamoto on the 21st were each appropriately serpentine and seductive, with Ms. Gullace particularly smoldering. Stephen Campanella did a fine job as the Chinese man on the 30th, but Mr. Dutko danced the role with extraordinary clarity and precision on the 21st. At both performances, Alice Cao danced a finely tuned lead Marzipan dancer, Joshua Kurtzberg performed the lead Candy Cane with abundant skill and enthusiasm, and Andrea D’Annunzio was the relatively high-strung but ingratiating maid. While I felt that the character of Clara and Fritz was not clearly delineated (they’re older children – Clara dances en pointe – but acted, during the Party Scene and its prologue, like much younger ones), the young PBS dancers who played Clara and Fritz, who were not credited, as well as those who danced in nearly every scene and dance, all performed well.
Drosselmeyer is a dominant character in this production, but one with more of a kind heart than in others. Mr. Martin played Drosselmeyer at both performances with an appropriate combination of visible affection, benevolent power, and magnificent charm. Finally, the production is successful in large part as a result of the sets, costumes, and lighting. While there is insufficient space to mention everyone cumulatively involved, credit must be given in large part to Carl Sprague, who created the Christmas Tree, and sets for the Snow Scene and all of Act II.
One personal annoyance that should be cured as the company grows in stature. In the future, ARB may want to consider providing paper program inserts to indicate the casting for each performance. Casting was posted at the Princeton performance, but only at one orchestra door, and no casting was available to the public at the New Brunswick performance. As important as the company is as a whole, most audience members do not read casting that may be posted on the company website, and the dancers should not be rendered anonymous.
The ballet concludes brilliantly. In certain other productions, after Clara leaves her bed, returns to the living room to be with her nutcracker ‘doll’, and falls asleep, and before she begins to dream, her mother finds her and covers her with a blanket to keep her warm. Here, the ‘blanket’ image is blended into the action in a different way. As the ballet ends, the denizens of the dream, the inhabitants of the Land of the Sweets, fade into the background behind a scrim, still visible in Clara’s mind and to the audience. Her mother finds Clara asleep, dreaming, and gently covers her sleeping daughter with a blanket, with her nutcracker folded in her arms, as the curtain descends. Perfect.
Smaller may not be better. But sometimes, as with ARB’s “Nutcracker,” it can be very good indeed.
edited on 12/31 to properly identify the company's Artistic Director
And again on 1/2 to change 'Fiftieth Anniversary' to 'Fiftieth Annual' Nutcracker presentation