Ballet West’s beloved “Nutcracker” shines like a diamond in 75th anniversary

Sun Dec 08, 2019 at 12:52 pm
By Kate Mattingly
Kyra Stafford as Clara (left) joins the battle in Ballet West’s The Nutcracker. Photo: Beau Pearson

It’s not often that a U.S. Congressman introduces a performance of The Nutcracker. But on Saturday night Representative Ben McAdams joined Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute and executive director Michael Scolamiero on stage to read a proclamation marking the 75th anniversary of Willam Christensen’s staging of  Tchaikovsky’s seasonal favorite.

McAdams ended his statement with a wish for “75 more years of successful productions,” which elicited much applause. It was a lofty start for this beloved holiday tradition, and a fitting testament to this show’s historic  importance. Before George Balanchine produced his Nutcracker in 1954, “Mr. C,” as Willam Christensen was called, had already established his pioneering version. 

As a teacher, Christensen, the founder of Ballet West, was known for his attention to dancers’ expression and artistry— attributes that are lost when ballet is defined as merely steps and lines. His Nutcracker, which had its premiere in 1944, is a reflection of his pedagogy, full of characters that convey the charm and whimsy of a fairy-tale. Saturday night’s cast enlivened his choreography in a performance that Mr. C would likely have loved.

The Act 1 party scene is full of rambunctious and talented young dancers, students of Ballet West Academy. Student ballet master Heather Thackeray has generated an ideal blend of charismatic acting and precise technique, and Act 1 bubbled with the children’s interactions and games. 

As Fritz, Gabriel Brown is as mischievous as his sister Clara, played by Eliana Smith, is sweet and demure. They are foils of each other, and incredibly relatable as siblings. Other standout young dancers include the regiments of soldiers led by Rifleman Kambri Butcher. Their crisp steps and precise formations contrast with the erratic Mice that seem directionless. The Mouse King, played by Tyler Gum, throws in some recent dance crazes like the Floss and the Dab.

During Act 2 the “Buffoons,” which look like tiny bees, escape from Mother Buffoon’s skirt and are adorable. The Buffoon Tumbler, Amaya Suzuki, darts across the stage in back handsprings. These acrobatic moments meld with Christensen’s more classical choreography, plus scintillating costumes designed by David Heuvel and scenic design by John Wayne Cook, to create a multifaceted show.

Photo: Beau Pearson

During the transformation of the Christmas Tree in Act 1, the set shifts to suggest that everything is larger than life, with enormous Christmas presents now depicted in the backdrop. This adds credibility to the next act when we see that a doll from the Party Scene that looked like a tiny bee, has now become a tiny human bee in the Buffoon scene.

Similar through-lines exist in the Doll character from Act 1, played exquisitely by Katie Critchlow, wearing a pink tutu and butterfly wings. In Act 2 we see this character suggested in the Sugar Plum Fairy, who also wears a pink tutu and large butterfly wings. These transformations turn the production into more than a children’s show: it’s a story about the importance of creativity, and imagining a world beyond the here and now.

During Act 2’s divertissements, each scene suggests a different part of the world. In the Spanish Dance, Hadriel Diniz, Katie Critchlow, and Chelsea Keefer exude the confidence and power of flamenco dancers. A Russian Dance recalls steps that could be performed by the Moiseyev Dance Company. A Chinese Warrior, played by Joshua Whitehead, evokes movement from Peking Opera.

Alongside these imaginings of faraway places, the production includes two gorgeous ballet pas de deux. Katlyn Addison and Adrian Fry in the roles of the Snow Queen and King are stellar. Beckanne Sisk as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Chase O’Connell as her Cavalier are majestic and captivating. Alexander MacFarlan as the Nutcracker Prince embodies all the nuances that Mr. C promoted: each step endowed with grace and clarity.

The orchestra was conducted by music director Jared Oaks, who keeps Tchaikovsky’s score moving at a lively clip, nicely enhancing the ebullience of the dancers. In Act 1, Snowflakes seem to leap onto their pointe shoes in arabesque steps that propel them across the stage, perfectly synchronized with Tchaikovsky’s notes. During Act 2, and adding to the comedy in Mr. C’s Nutcracker, Oaks and Mother Buffoon exchange a playful banter of blowing kisses to one another.

There are many reasons why this Nutcracker production has stood the test of time: it is endearing, humorous, and heartfelt. Ballet West’s production continues to reflect those rare qualities while the company’s current corps of gifted dancers make this choreography feel fresh and relevant. 

Ballet West’s The Nutcracker continues through December 26.

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