During these tough economic times, ballet companies rely even more on The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky's crowd-pleasing holiday favorite, to pay the bills for the rest of their seasons. There are as many versions of this classic ballet as there are different takes on its ubiquitous score (I heard a flamenco-guitar "Sugar Plum Fairies" the other day), and each local production bears its own stamp.
Despite prerecorded music, the new Madison Ballet staging of The Nutcracker, which opened Saturday in Overture Hall, is lavish and colorful, with solid dancing from company members and students, and cute little kids aplenty.
We first see a very busy and crowded party scene at the Stahlbaums' well-appointed home. The mysterious Drosselmeyer (Sam White, with swirling cape and arched brows) brings magic in the form of a dancing doll (Katy Fredrick, in a pretty little solo) and soldier (dynamo Avi Scher). By now the audience is happy to see some ballet after lots of pantomime and racing around by the young party guests.
Drosselmeyer gives a nutcracker to his goddaughter Clara (danced by Karen Walker with sweet sincerity). Her wild-child brother Fritz (Kerry Dennis in lederhosen) breaks the toy, and she is crestfallen. After the party, she sneaks downstairs in her nightgown to check on it.
Things get a little spooky. Fog rolls in and green lights flash when Drosselmeyer sets a spell, causing the Christmas tree to grow to enormous proportions. Walker is particularly good here; she darts gracefully around the stage with a sense of wonder, tinged with fear.
Curling up on the couch to sleep, she is besieged first by adorable baby mice, then menacing rats. The Nutcracker appears, now a grown man (Bryan Cunningham). Accompanied by a tiny bugle boy and toy soldiers, he battles the rodents.
When Clara goes to bed, she dreams she's a young woman, now danced by Marguerite Luksik. Luksik and Cunningham perform a lovely, romantic pas de deux amid snow-covered trees and gently falling snow. The scene is sumptuous with its lush score and artistic director W. Earle Smith's dreamy, romantic choreography. Saturday afternoon, smooth lifts and real chemistry between the leads more than made up for a few tentative turns. When the snowflake corps de ballet arrived, swirling and sparkling, I appreciated Smith's musicality and his eye for pleasing formations. On a velvet settee, Clara is lifted to an enchanted garden.
Act II is an explosion of color. A choir of tiny garden attendants welcome Luksik and her handsome cavalier, now in purple. The pas de deux that followed didn't resonate as much as their first, and Luksik looked a little fretful in her solo. But she's a very good technician, and she triumphed over a challenging series of chanés and piqué turns.
Drosselmeyer is the impresario in this land, and the festive residents arrive to entertain him. These celebrated divertissements were a bit uneven. The Spanish pas de deux was fine, but not particularly inspiring. I'm no prude, but the Arabian pas de deux struck me as a little too sensuous, even as I marveled at Rachelle Butler's extensions and flexibility.
Instead of the typical Chinese dance, Smith gives us a quicksilver trio of Thai dancers with clever and glittering costumes. Avi Scher returns as the Russian soloist and wows the crowd with his technique and bravado. I'll admit that I usually zone out in the Mirlitons dance, no matter which production I see. But Juliana Lehman did some nice work -- despite a little slip that unnerved her more than the audience.
The audience spontaneously kept the beat for the darling, dancing Pucinellas, set free from Mother Ginger's petticoats. Here, and in other sections where he choreographed for young children, Smith should be applauded for showing restraint by coming up with age-appropriate steps. Too often, I see flashy choreography for kids that's meant to impress audiences, but that just seems false and tacky. With this production, we are reminded of the simple joy of seeing children moving to music (and wearing awesome costumes by Tracey Lyons).
In the lyrical "Waltz of the Flowers," radiant Katrina Oeffling delights as the Dewdrop in a spare, shiny costume that lets us admire the clean lines of her legs and her pliable upper body. Smith comes up with some tricky business for her, and she is on top of her game. Luksik and Cunningham wrap things up with a flashy, grand pas de deux, with lots of bold lifts to enthrall the crowd. Cunningham has a nice, laid-back presence and looks his part, with his long legs and country-club good looks. Luksik dazzles with a swift series of foueteé turns.
Everyone returns for the stirring finale, a highlight reel of snippets from the soloists. The group waves a fond goodbye to Clara as she departs on blue velvet.