It’s a Ball at the Ballet
Ballet San Jose’s Nutcracker in Review
Opening Night, December 16, 2004
by Dean Speer
Feeling a bit like a sardine, squeezed and being pulled along with the throngs of commuters on U.S. Highway 101 heading south to San Jose, it was relief that we made our appointed round at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts in time for the curtain to rise on this unique production. [“I’ll run, you park the car!”]
Ballet San Jose is a mid-sized professional company located south of the Bay Area in California’s famous Silicon Valley, formerly home to fruits and vegetables – although it’s rumored that some fruits are still being grown and nurtured here – and is one that I’ve come to like very much as I’ve gotten to know and see it in performance over the past couple of years.
Drosselmeyer is a magician in this production and not just an eccentric uncle, this being established right away by his popping out of a gift box at the home of the Tannenbaums, with a look on his face that radiates the message that a delightful and fun Christmas Eve is on its way!
Probably the most unique feature of this production is in its placement of the Act II action. Maria and her Cavalier journey from country to country while returning him to his native Muscovy. There is no Land of Sweets. Another departure is having the Cavalier’s parents, the Tsarina and Tsar dance the Grand Pas de Deux, which is part of a ball they throw in honor of his return in a ballroom of a palace. The music that’s most often done for the Waltz of the Flowers, is instead a grand waltz for couples à la Vienna Dances with the women in full-length formal gowns and the men in tails. I also liked the magical surprise of the Nutcracker himself taking a final bow from his fireplace mantlepiece shelf at the end of the ballet.
Artistic Director and choreographer Dennis Nahat also inserts some additional Tchaikovsky music. For example, he uses the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin at the conclusion of the ballroom scene and earlier, he uses the Capriccio Italian for the first part of the Spanish Dance Scene (The Great Gates of Castille), which, as though it has that Neopolitan rhythmic bounce to it, nevertheless does work. The Chinese Scene (Land of the Ivory Pagoda) is combined with the Mirliton’s music and we get first some wonderful and charmingly authentic and certified Chinese Ribbon Dancers, followed by Chinese acrobats set to the normal Chinese Dance music.
I also thought Act I was delightful. Helga the Housekeeper and her underling maid are having a small battle of wills about how the Christmas bunting should be hung; it turns out they were both wrong! This act is filled with small and big details and there is lots going on – so much so that the eye hardly knows where to look next. Helga was played by former ABT ballerina and ballet teacher guru, Roni Mahler, much to the satisfaction of my tempered eye. And when she Nahat (as Drosselmeyer) were dancing together, the joy and magic that they shared between them was really great.
The battle mice come on incrementally as Maria falls asleep in a big chair, building both in numbers and size, looking cute at first and then becoming more threatening and frightening.
French-born dreamboat Stephane Dalle made a for a dashing Cavalier. His elegant line and ballet breeding show in all of his dancing and acting. Strong technique with power and presence to match.
Special note must be made of Karen Gabay’s Marie as she was celebrating her 25th year in this part and in this production. She looks 16 and dances with a freshness that belies her experience and position as a dancer. Her technique is untouched by time and if anything, has been tempered by it. Light, strong, lovely clean line, excellent and tidy pointe and footwork – it was inspirational to watch and I hope she continues to bring her talents and artistry to her fans and ballet audiences for many more seasons to come. Gabay is a model for other dancers and aspiring students. A model of technique, use of face and expression, and of dedication to her craft.
Major kudos also to the Ballet San Jose Orchestra and to conductor Dwight Oltman for giving the kind of musical experience I like to have, which for me, means playing the music as written including good tempi and supporting the dancers.
While it can be a bit of a commuter strain getting to the South Bay from San Francisco, it’s definitely worth it to see this company’s sincere and interesting work. And at Nutcracker time, its sparkling, fun, and elegant production. Their team has clearly put their creative hearts into their work – and it shows.