It’s Not Only The Tree That Grows
Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker
Saturday evening show and Sunday matinée, 11 & 12 December 2004
by Dean Speer
OBT’s Nutcracker is a cranberry confection delight, courtesy of the artistic sensibility and choreographic mastery of George Balanchine. This year it was fun to enjoy two showings of this welcome rendition of the ballet that saved (practically!) ballet in America. It contains what’s probably some of the best choreography of just about any Nutcracker.
OBT has grown into its shoes over the past year and a half and this showed in each of the two performances I was able to attend. It was an audacious thing in the first place to bring this famous version to West Coast audiences in 2003 and now in its second year, the Company has had time to settle into its direction under the leadership of its new Artistic Director, Christopher Stowell.
It begins with Peter Farmer’s frontdrop curtain that’s a rich cranberry color and suggests that the ballet that’s about to be revealed is actually a present under the Christmas Tree. His sets and costumes are appropriately Victorian for Act I’s Party Scene and for Act II, he sets the fairy Kingdom of Sweets in a forest garden, with huge flowers, suggesting that Marie has been brought by her Nutcracker Prince to an enchanted place that’s scaled to the fairy world. His cranberry-colored drops for the Party Scene were nearly russet in tone and the design suggested to me that it might have been done by Russian artists looking through Russian-colored glasses at 1850s Germany. Particularly outstanding are his costume creations for Mirlitons (Marzipan) and Chinese (Tea).
Bravo also to OBT for including an actual children’s chorus for the Act I Snow Scene. It was great hearing this floating and angelic sound coming out of the orchestra pit. Brenda Baker, chorusmaster, deserves kudos for her choir’s clean ensemble, clear pitches, full sound and phrasing. Niel DePonte led the OBT orchestra with sensitivity to the overall score and while also keeping one eye on the dancers. Concertmaster Lorely Zgonc’s solo during the Act I Transition Scene was a filled with passion and feeling. This scene sets up Drosselmeyer’s sending of Marie to her special dreamland when he sneaks in to fix her broken Nutcracker doll and then climbs the Grandfather Clock, changes its hands to midnight and so unleashes the madness and fun of the Battle Scene.
I’ve said this before and it’s clearly too late now but if there’s some kind of connection to Mr. Balanchine in ballet heaven, please tell him we need and long to see a Snow Queen and King instead of Marie’s bed spinning about the stage during the transition from the Battle Scene to Snowflakes. To me, it’s such a waste of glorious music, goes on way too long, and my eye yearns for a duet at this juncture. So I disagree with Mr. B’s choice. I also would have preferred that the Snowflakes stay on stage to frame the upstage walking of Marie and Fritz upstage, as it looks too lonely to me with just them up there. Ah, well.
Yuka Iino WAS the Sugar Plum Fairy Saturday night. Her classicism and regalilty had a charm, sweetness, and command to it that was truly sugar-spun. Although shorter than Iino when she was en pointe, Cavalier Karl Vakili was a solid and sympathetic partner. Iino made the most out of every step in the famous celeste solo. And the increase of her speed and intensity of chainé turns, culminating her spinning off stage right during the coda finale were thrilling. This woman embraces turning!
Gavin Larsen gets better and better every time I see her and her matinée performance as Sugar Plum was no exception. And her double gargoulliades traveling *backward* finishing in a magnificent effacé fourth position as the lead during Marzipan Shepherdesses (aka Mirlitons) were exciting. I had the opportunity to observe Company Class given by Damara Bennett prior to Sunday’s show, and it was instructive to see how each dancer prepared him or herself. Ms. Larsen was working to get herself “on her legs” and really pushed herself to go just a little beyond in many of the exercises, as she was gearing up for performing. It was fun comparing each one’s individual approach and interpretation to Balachine’s steps. OBT is fortunate to have both. Artur Sultanov has long, elegant line and is, I believe, the tallest male in the Company. He’s paired well with Ms. Larsen and the two of them made the Grand Pas de Deux memorable. He’s also an excellent partner and a very dedicated dancer. I’d only like to see a little more stretch in his legs during the coupé jeté en ménage during the coda.
What can I say about Alison Roper? Simply amazing. Natural and ample facility, an awesome technique, and power to match it. She attacks each movement phrase and fits into the Balanchine mode and choreography like a made-to-order glove. Her Arabian Saturday night made much of this exotic solo and her timing of the finger bells was dead-on. However, Dewdrop is where she really shines. This thoroughbred blossom comes charging through the corps and grabs our attention. She really is enjoying herself and dances as if each step were a special treasure just for her and us. Roper made the relevé arabesque into relevé passé series sequence look fun and easy. Great control.
I also very much liked Kathi Martuza’s Dewdrop of Saturday night. Her San Francisco Ballet experience put her into a level that shows itself. Her command and joy were compelling. OBT is lucky to have her (and her absent husband Kester Cotton, who is reportedly temporarily sidelined).
Everyone enjoyed both Louis-Phillipe Dionne (Saturday night) and Steven Houser’s (Sunday matinée) hoop-jumping and spinning Candy Canes. Lots of gasps from the audience. It’s a spirited and fun dance that has a whole, different flavor as Candy Canes as opposed to a Russian Trepak.
Balanchine’s Chinese Tea dance has the man popping out of a box brought in by two attendants, who properly bow and scape, particularly while exiting with the now, back-into-the-box Jumping Jack. Great humor and fun.
Apprentice Christopher Coffee’s Mother Ginger was a hoot. “She” really camps it up and comes into the apogee of “her” mode when whipping out a tambourine to accompany her 8 kids. Shoulder shimmy and all. And the old bit about her pulling out a hand mirror to check her face and then acting shocked and horrified is old-time buffoonery that we ate up. I would only suggest that as she over powders her face, that she conclude with a poof under each arm. Uncle Milton Berle on top of a big dress-tent with charming and nicely trained student dancers popping out right on cue.
While OBT is going and growing gangbusters, it would be nice to see designed and funded someday a new, growing Christmas tree. While its growth was smooth and it’s a nice tree, the whole affair was a little flat and didn’t elicit the kind of clap and response from the audience that it could. I guess today’s audiences expect a little more and it is set to some of the most thrilling music of the ballet, so I don’t think too much of anyone would have strong objections about a re-designed tree.
Portlanders and those of the surrounding environs are in on being able to see, experience and support first-hand the growth and maturity of one of its major arts organizations. This being the 60th anniversary of America’s Nutcracker-mania, it will be interesting to observe OBT’s track into the next decade and beyond and to annually return to one of the catalysts for this – the famous and revered Balanchine Nutcracker.