Nutcracker Fantasy, which opened Friday night and runs through Dec. 9, can't escape construction. The Dance Wisconsin performance is usually presented at the UW Memorial Union's Wisconsin Union Theater, which is closed for renovations. Its temporary home, Madison College's Mitby Theater, is surrounded by construction as well. But that didn't get in the way of cheerful elves, orderly lines of toy soldiers, a choir of carolers and impressive guest stars.
Artistic director Jo Jean Retrum's spin on The Nutcracker is a departure from traditional productions of the holiday ballet and at times feels like a trippy fever dream. Many of the variations that typically happen in Act II have been moved to the Act I party scene, which is held at Uncle Drosselmeyer's toy store instead of Marie's home. In addition, Tchaikovsky's famous score has been edited and augmented. Luckily, the plot is described both in the program and on stage by little Marie's grandmother, who explains that after other dolls in the toy shop come to life, the Nutcracker doll is sad because he has no partner. Seeing he is smitten with a Sugar Plum Fairy doll frozen in a snow globe, Marie helps guide him through the Ice Forest and Land of Poinsettias to his dream girl, who is unfrozen. He turns into the Sugar Plum's cavalier and all is well as snow falls.
Not all of the additions, subtractions and edits worked for me. I was happy to do without a lot of the typical party-scene flotsam and jetsam, but it's jarring to have the snow scene after the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux. Some elements are curious, like the giant teddy bear, but then again, I could watch the two hilarious dancing snowmen endlessly. The choir from Monona Grove High School sounds great and looks smart in their costumes and adds an extra dash of holiday spirit.
Now about the dancing... Retrum is known for her work with male dancers, and it shows. Some of them clearly have bright futures in dance. Several of the girls were wonderful as well. Parker Buske as Marie is sweetly engaging and has graceful arms and hands. She has some especially lovely moments as she winds her way through the Ice Forest in Act II. Jonathan Person really shined in Act I as the nimble Jack in the Box (with his sassy and diminutive cohort Ashlyn Knieriem) and as part of the sultry Arabian couple (then paired with pretty Emily Jamieson, who has excellent technique but needs to amp up her acting). However, Person struggled a bit later in the Snow King and Queen pas de deux with the regal Ashley Dahm. The standout for me in the young cast was Jordan Zweifel. As part of the flashy Spanish duo with her very capable partner, Anthony Cannarella-Anderson, she displayed abundant stage presence combined with solid technique. I was surprised to learn that she is still in high school because she has a more mature presence. My eyes were always drawn to her in the poinsettia and snowflake corps de ballet because she's the full package and because it's obvious that dancing brings her happiness.
This production also offers local audiences a rare opportunity to see a principal dancer from the New York City Ballet. Guest artist Ashley Bouder was a pleasure to watch. She brings strength and precision to the role, her technique as crisp and sparkly as her tutu. Since she is totally in command of her skills, the audience is able to sit back and enjoy her work. In almost any production featuring lots of children, there will be a few floppy feet and some bent knees here and there, but with Bouder, we're reminded of what these kids aspire to. Her partner and husband, Matthew Dibble, formerly of England's Royal Ballet, was chivalrous in presenting her artistry. A skilled technician himself, Dibble also has fun with his phrasing and musicality.
While sometimes perplexing and frustrating for me (apparently I am more set in my Nutcracker ways than I realized), the production earns bonus points for live music from the Dance Wisconsin Orchestra, some very pretty costumes (especially the poinsettias, the ballerina dolls and skaters) and for bringing in world-class guests.