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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the December 20,
2000 edition of
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `The Nutcracker’
Snow falling on snowballs" will be one of the
stage pictures that stays with me from American Repertory Ballet’s
winsome and witty new production of "The Nutcracker." The
Snowballs are eight young dancers in big rotund snowball suits who
dance playfully with eight elegant snow maidens in ice-blue gowns,
all swirling within a beautiful frozen silver birch forest.
This lovely vision forms the closing moments of Act I of Graham
ambitious new "Nutcracker" production. Set in early
Vienna, with a reconceived libretto by Lustig, the production is
of a work in progress. As seen at the State Theater on Sunday,
10, accompanied by the American Repertory Ballet Orchestra, the ballet
opened with three successively smart scenes for a dazzling first act,
but fell down somewhat (literally and figuratively) in Act II.
Nutcracker" will be presented at the War Memorial Theater,
on Saturday, December 23, in two matinee shows. It returns to McCarter
Theater (accompanied by recorded music) from Thursday, December 28,
through Sunday, December 31.
This year’s huge investment of ARB’s money, time, and resources, is
clearly evident in the new production that is a feast for the eyes
— particularly for those with a sweet tooth. Party scenes, vivid
dreams, and dancing candies are all remarkably alive. Future seasons
should provide time to develop some of the new choreography and
enliven the rather static Act II stage picture.
Lustig, a former ballet soloist who admits to having no ties, either
professional or sentimental to America’s perennial holiday favorite,
has re-conceived E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story of Marie and her dream of
the Nutcracker Prince. His program notes describe how he created his
ballet "after listening long and hard to the brilliant score."
And this fountain of inspiration is everywhere evident. The little
girl’s romantic awakenings are enacted here with the help of a
who steps into the dream to play Marie as a young woman. In Sunday’s
performance these complementary figures were so nicely realized by
Kate Castranova and Mary Barton that the transformation was almost
There’s no denying that designer Zack Brown’s creative and colorful
new costumes are extraordinary, both in their whimsy and their
I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite among such winners as the
attire of the Viennese school girls, the dazzling matched Empire-line
party dresses for Marie and her mother, and the exotic Act II costumes
that include a stunning pink reribboned Nightingale. Perhaps the most
spectacular was the sumptuously attired, fin-de-siecle Rat King in
his black and gold cloak lined in purple silk, set off by an ermine
Lustig loves to tell stories, and this
manifests an affinity for the British holiday pantomime tradition.
He also loves to tell stories within stories. In Act I, set in a
drawing room of the Viennese modernist avant-garde, such stage stories
follow one another fast and furiously. A big gridded picture window
even allows us to follow two scenes simultaneously, one indoors and
one outside on the frozen lake. From a lovely young couple’s courtship
that is interrupted by a children’s snowball fight, to a party episode
with a naughty boy and a rubber rat that foreshadows Marie’s bad
there’s almost too much here for the eye and ear to follow.
The scenario for the battle with the rats, emerging from a monstrous
serving of squishy cake, presumably dreamed up in concert with
Brown, is as funnily scary as can be. With dazzlingly uniformed troops
on both sides, there are few fake pyrotechnics employed, instead the
rats are armed with tastefully designed table knives and forks.
Such a scene works splendidly, yet sometimes Lustig sacrifices
ballet goers’ expectations (or perhaps just my own) for stage
— such as a Waltz of the Flowers for many blossoms rather than
the six we saw here — for his original ideas. Pleasure comes in
many forms and there’s no denying that there’s pleasure to be had,
especially for returning parents and grandparents, in the familiar.
Brown’s setting for Act II, in the Kingdom of the Sweets, here called
"Confiturembourg," is enlivened by huge stylized flowers that
rise up to flank a distant candy castle. A gingerbread wall and entry
gate runs along the back of the scene, but become progressively boring
as the act unfolds.
The famously sparkling and sometimes virtuosic variations for the
candies of all nations, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s memorable
are customarily performed before an appreciative onstage audience
as well as the one seated in the theater. Here, however, Marie and
her Prince sit alone onstage, nestled in a hollow cupcake, to watch
the festivities. This puts the dancers on the spot and leaves little
latitude for missteps and second casts. Why Lustig has eschewed the
opportunity to keep his ensemble of exquisitely costumed performers
onstage to help animate the Act II stage picture is a mystery to me.
A creative and capable choreographer, Lustig’s new dances are, at
present, uneven. They range from the cheerfully inventive to the
difficult, with some, such as the Arabian variation, needing a touch
Most problematic in Sunday’s performance was Sugar Plum Fairy Jennifer
Provins and her Cavalier Peter de Grasse (one of four couples
in the role), who experienced real difficulty. In the show’s most
climactic moments they struggled through what struck me as a
Grand Pas de Deux, one that failed to build in sympathy with the music
in either form or execution.
Nevertheless, the evening comes to a touching conclusion as the dream
recedes and we see the two Maries on stage together, each in their
Over a span of 36 seasons, each ARB "Nutcracker" has had its
weaknesses and strengths. This latest incarnation has all the makings
of a new favorite, once Lustig brings the second half of his
up to the high standard he sets in the first.
— Nicole Plett
Memorial Theater , Trenton, 609-984-8400. $15 to $40. Saturday,
December 23, 1 and 4:30 p.m.
to $38. Thursday, December 28, 7 p.m.; Friday, December 29, 1 and
7 p.m.; Saturday, December 30, 1 and 4:30 p.m.; and Sunday, December
31, 1 p.m.
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