Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Nutcracker”
Saturday, 10 December 2005
Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon
by Dean Speer
One of the challenges of live theatre is keeping it fresh. This is true on both sides of the stage. When faced with a long running play, perhaps on Broadway, doing eight or nine shows each week, it can be potentially daunting to make each one as zippy as the first. But that’s the job of the performer and a lesson learned in stage craft. In fact, you may have observed that often with experienced performers and companies, the shows actually get tighter and more “seasoned” as the run goes along.
The same could safely be said for those of us on the other side of the curtain. If you have seen – or been in – dozens or hundreds of “Nutcrackers,” you may begin to know what I mean. For me, it’s a matter both of enjoying and welcoming the familiar as well as looking for things I ‘ve not seen before – perhaps for real or perhaps just seeing more in-depth – and of enjoying dancers who are tackling roles for the first time or of seeing a cast arrayed differently. A ‘Clara’ taking on ‘Dew Drop’ or a ‘Prince’ delightfully mugging his way through ‘Herr Drosselmeier.’
This was certainly true for me when viewing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s third foray into George Balanchine’s rightfully famous version of this chestnut. It’s a production that’s become welcomingly familiar, yet I still get a spark of pleasure and joy from seeing it. It’s also clear that Portland-area audiences are picking up on this as well. Reports of houses selling well fell on my ears and this is news I’m very happy to hear. It’s great when sales snowball from year to year.
Some of the poetic joys of Mr. Balanchine’s version may be found in the large ensemble numbers such ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ and the Snow Scene that concludes Act I. Also choreographically brilliant is ‘Mirlitons’ – one of the best I’ve ever seen. Equally brilliant and up to the challenge of the choreography were Daniela Deloe with Ansa Deguchi, Cameron Giese, Mia Leimkuhler and Emily Tedesco. If you’re on the lookout for some great pointe work, this is the place to find it.
If I were to write a letter to Mr. Balanchine, I might lodge a complaint about the bed rolling around the stage during some of the most glorious music (this is where a Snow Queen and King pas de deux is often inserted in other versions). I’ll probably be writing this “letter to Santa” annually.
I might also lobby for more interesting choreography for ‘Arabian.’ It starts out promisingly and ends well, but doesn’t really go anywhere. And in trying to think about and analyze what bothers me about it, I conclude that it’s too “steppy.” She’s constantly making step, step, step, step. I just wanted to scream out, “Be still and do a développé!” It’s also very à terre – she never gets off the ground. The middle section could have been better built. I know he did a new version for Gloria Govrin in the mid ‘60s but don’t know if this is that one or not. I hope not, although I may be wrong. Gavin Larsen gave it all she had in this part – which is considerable. Technique great. Interpretation great. Her timing and musicality are impeccable. Always a pleasure and treat to see an artist like Larsen who’s in her prime.
New to this viewer this year were Allison Roper as the ‘Sugar Plum’ and Yuka Iino as ‘Dew Drop.’ Roper is an Oregon phenomenon and artistic treasure. It was great seeing her in something that combines the ability to deploy her technical power and acting skills. (Yes, it requires “presence” too! If you’ve ever had to sit through a wooden dull and boring Sugar Plum, as I have, you’ll be with me on this front.) Roper’s ‘Cavalier’ was the tall and elegant new-kid-on-the-block, Ronnie Underwood. The beginning of the coda tantalized us with a brief glimpse of what he can do. We look forward to seeing more of Mr. Underwood. (My epistle to Mr. Balanchine would also include a note about no solo for the ‘Cavalier’ – only the pas de deux proper and the coda that follows. Maybe he didn’t like 3/8 Tarantellas. Tsk, tsk.)
‘Dew Drop’ is a bright part that’s about sheer technique displayed well with many setup entrances and diagonals such as the one that’s stuck in my data bank of double sauté rond de jambe into a piqué arabesque – or even of Iino’s coming from upstage to down through two lines of ‘Flowers.” And what ‘Flowers!’ Supple lines and poses but also the speed at which they move through the kaleidoscope of these shapes and patterns. It’s simply breath taking and one of those nuggets that impels me to want to return for repeat viewings. I just LOVE it when they are in a single line and swoop the stage in a single turn, and then break into two lines and do the same, surprising us by finishing in one, big circle. It’s great!
Candy Cane (aka, Russian) uses Hula-Hoops and the principal, newcomer Jon Drake, gets to impress us by jumping through his swirling hoop – and he does. I find it interesting to note that the original cast member from the first 1954 New York City Ballet production is from the Northwest (Robert Barnett is from Wenatchee, Washington), so in a sense – and this may be a bit of a stretch – it’s bringing it back to the Northwest.
Music Director and Conductor Niel DePonte ably led the Oregon Ballet Theatre through the thicket of the Tchaikovsky score. OBT uses a small boys’ choir for the Snow Scene and this is a special aural treat as most groups use either orchestra only or, as in the case of PNB, two female singers.
Artistic Director Christopher Stowell and his staff have done a good job of rehearsing and making this “Nutcracker” just about as fresh, spontaneous, and as exciting as it can be. I look forward to future visits and to seeing the old and the new – both of which make the “Nutcracker” journey southward from Seattle to Portland an annual, fresh event.