Magic Toy Store, Diablo Ballet, Dean Lesher Center, Walnut Creek, CA
“The Magic Toy Store,” (“Boutique Fantasque,” original 1919 version by Leonide Massine) looks to have become a viable alternative to the ubiquitous “Nutcracker,” for those “Bridge and Tunnel” dance fans unwilling to endure the double jeopardy of holiday traffic during bridge construction. Diablo Ballet’s version has grown over the years, from something along the lines of the Massine version, to a longer, more elaborate one, additions having been made by Nikolai Kabaniaev, the company’s co-artistic director.
The story derives its inspiration from the folk tale, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” and is about the after-hours love that flourishes when nobody’s minding the store between a toy soldier (danced by Jekyns Pelaez) and a ballerina doll (danced by Mayo Sugano). It opens with chimes that signal closing time, then a soldier appears, who knocks on the cupboard of his beloved, who steps out, in full ballet princess regalia, and they show us how they feel about each other, tiptoeing around in the evening shadows. While the Soldier’s costume is not all that soldier-like, and he could be taken for just another doll, the Ballerina Doll is so picture perfect in a white confection of tulle and spandex that it seems almost criminal that the Royal She has been confined to her cupboard until “liberated” by her Soldier. They dance an adagio to music by Gioacchino Rossini, and Ms. Sugano’s generous ballonés, regal arabesques, and disarming head poses, illuminate the darkened stage. She is more enthusiastic about the potential of her lifts than her partner, and he doesn’t always seem ready when she is, but she covers adroitly.
The dotty shop keeper is danced expertly by Viktor Kabaniaev. Lucky for us, he received the Vaganova Institute’s nonpareil character training before making his way to the stages of the Golden Gate. You have the teensiest suspicion, but are never quite sure, that our store keep has helped himself to a little something to take the chill off a winter’s night. He bumbles around, as the principals return to their cupboards, and then manages to pull off several double tours in spite of his sizeable girth. A family of three arrives, with Lauren Jonas, the company’s artistic director, dancing the role of the mother. She is vigilantly maternal, except for a curious little hip swivel that she manages to let loose every now and then. The couple’s little boy is danced by company apprentice, Emily Liu, whose facility and character work show not only her capacities, but a good grasp of the comedic timing required of her. Unlike “Nutcracker,” where the divertissements are intended to be foreign and mysterious, “Magic Toy Store” brings us quirky characters, looking more neurotic than exotic. For example, there’s the Waiter, danced with polish by Andrew Allagree, who pulls out multiple and perfect pirouettes, while holding a champagne bottle in one hand and a champagne glass in the other. Try that some New Year’s Eve! There are the Devil and She Devil, whose roles don’t entirely make sense, but whose dancing does. A second more non-traditional family arrives at the toy store. The dominatrix mother (Bryon Heinrich) leads with her transgender, the father (Lauren Jonas) is under her thumb, and their pigtailed daughter (apprentice Olivia Crowell) is a temper tantrum in teapot, whose goal is to have the soldier as her toy store booty (in the old-fashioned sense of the word, that is). With the help of the Fairy Doll (Amy Foster Bernsten) and a waltz of the cupboards, the Soldier becomes more emboldened and dances snatches of the “Nutcracker” Russian variation convincingly enough to make us feel that he can come out of his cupboard and own his feelings valiantly. The Ballerina Doll emerges from her closeted life, as smooth as silk, and filled with delicate hegemony, as love triumphs over greed.
The piece reads a little unevenly, in part, because the lighting is somewhat static. The stage has to be in shadow to show that the store is closed when some—but not all—of the action is taking place. Also, the opening and closing and stepping in and out of cupboards, makes the choreography ungainly in places. The cupboards are unfinished inside, and certainly, a Ballerina Doll of the stature of Ms. Sugano’s character, would have a velvet, or silk-lined cupboard. The Waiter might have a cupboard whose insides had shelves and wine steward’s accoutrements displayed. The Soldier might have weapons of minimal destruction stored in his cupboard. If the doors were removed and replaced with painted scrim, the opening and closing could be mimed or danced, and contribute to telling the story, instead of partly obstructing it.
The show runs under an hour, and unlike “Nutcracker,” when the house lights come on, the children who make up the majority of the audience seem enlivened and engaged, rather than pallid and cranky. Many could be observed dancing in the aisles, and that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?