If you’re pressed for time, yet want to squeeze in some rich and rewarding ballet-going this holiday season, the American Repertory Ballet’s snappy production of “The Nutcracker” should do the trick.
Danced to a brisk recording of the iconic Tchaikovsky score, ARB’s version of the magical ballet about a young girl’s Christmas Eve dream is rendered in record time, yet without missing any of the work’s beloved components.
Along with sizeable portions of high-caliber classical dancing by the company’s fine professional performers (joined by Princeton Ballet School students), there’s also the signature wee army of toy soldiers impressively battling over-sized rats, a super-handsome Nutcracker Prince (Andrea Marini), an enchanting journey through a snowstorm, and the entertaining array of ethnic dances served up in the luscious Land of Sweets. And the whole shebang, including a 15-minute intermission, is over in a kid-friendly under-two-hours.
But is this really a good thing? Even though the first act came in under 50 minutes, a tween sitting behind me commented, “That was SO long.”
Despite the demolition of youngsters’ attention spans by today’s technology-driven culture, racing through an artistic presentation does a disservice all around. Not only does it dilute the experience’s potentially transformative powers, but it can also diminish the artistry, as it did in this production’s snow pas de deux, danced by Nanako Yamamoto and Aldeir Monteiro.
Arriving at the end of the narrative-heavy Act I, it’s the ballet’s first extended, pure classical dance sequence and is usually eagerly awaited by the serious balletomanes in the audience. As staged here (after choreography by Mary Barton and Douglas Martin), the exciting sequence features an abundance of lifts that should be breathtakingly gorgeous. Instead, the tempo is so fast that Yamamoto never remains aloft long enough to clearly register an airborne body shape. One sees her start to descend before reaching the peaks of the lifts. It’s as if the couple, both exquisite dancers, are rushing to keep up with the music, rather than taking time to reveal the beauty of their movements.
Yet despite its hurried pace, the production is chock-full of spectacular dancing by individual performers. A dancer who truly understands how to send energy out into space and project beyond her own physicality, Marie Tender, with her effervescent smile and spot-on balances, sparkles in the role of Dewdrop, darting among the waltzing flowers.
Nina Yoshida and Tanner Bleck, as mechanical wind-up dolls, execute clean-as-a-whistle pirouettes, her with her head tilted to one side, surely making it impossible to spot (to do those delayed, quick head turns that allow dancers to control their spinning).
And Annie Johnson — whose fierce talent I first noticed in ARB’s performance of a Paul Taylor modern dance work earlier this season — gives an exhilarating performance of the Spanish number that launches the series of Act II variations. Dramatically partnered by Daniel Cooke, she dances with a strong, alluring confidence, perfect for the flamenco-flavored choreography.
In the Arabian variation that follows, Erikka Reenstierna-Cates and Journy Wilkes-Davis ooze through slowly entwining, acrobatic partnerwork with elegant sensuality, the leisurely pulsating rhythms of the belly-dance-like choreography providing a welcome change of pace.
Because of its cliched portrayal of Chinese ethnicity and use of culturally unauthentic movements “The Nutcracker’s” Chinese variation is a hot political issue in the ballet world these days, with many dance companies re-working its concept and choreography. Here, there is no central male figure, no one pops out of a box, and there’s little in the way of scurrying around. Instead, a group of women offer spirited classical ballet steps ornamented by hand gestures that may still be criticized as too generically Asian.
At the recent matinee performance I attended at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, the cherry on top of this tasty production was the chance to see guest artists Unity Phelan and Adrian Danchig-Waring, from New York City Ballet, perform George Balanchine’s choreography of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier pas de deux. A Princeton native and Princeton Ballet School alumna the leggy Phelan makes tricky turn sequences look like a walk in the park, but it’s her supple torso, moving fluidly in response to her luxurious legwork that makes her a ravishing ballerina.
The Nutcracker continues Friday through Sunday, December 13 to 15, (with live orchestra) at New Brunswick’s State Theatre New Jersey and Saturday, December 21, at Trenton’s Patriots Theater at the War Memorial. $25 to $65. www.arballet.org.