Friends ask if I get bored seeing multiple Nutcrackers each season, but I really don't. There are always new details to notice at the Madison Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker, which opened yesterday and runs through Dec. 24 at Overture Hall. Details like how the army of mice uses large buttons for shields and how we can see party guests waving from the street through the set's frosty windows.
When you see dancers evolve in their roles (Marguerite Luksik as the Sugar Plum Fairy), notice tremendous improvements in their technique (Jacob Ashley) or recognize their talent for the first time (Brittney Benington as the doll), this old chestnut of a ballet seems fresh. Making this year's production more special was the return of live music from members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and a fond farewell to dancer and Madison native Genevieve Custer Weeks, who retires after this run. (A curtain-call tribute was especially heartfelt and tender, with lots of flowers, kisses, confetti and streamers.)
For those unfamiliar with the plot, Young Clara (Sophie Stalker-Herron, with pretty arabesques and bouncing ringlets) receives a nutcracker doll from her charismatic godfather, Drosselmeyer (Sam White) at her family's Christmas party. After the party, she sneaks back downstairs and drifts off to sleep before being besieged by legions of mice and rats that do battle with toy soldiers. Her nutcracker comes alive and defeats the heinous rat king with her help. Clara turns into a young woman (Luksik), and, after a swirling snow scene, is transported to a magical garden kingdom. Here, dancers from around the world perform, and Clara and her Nutcracker become the Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince.
The sets and costumes are sumptuous and artistic director W. Earle Smith's Balanchine-influenced choreography has its own distinctive voice, filled with lushness and romance. My favorite scene is the Land of the Snowflakes, where the corps de ballet does excellent work, their costumes glistening as snow falls. The live flute here was a real treat, and the music and dancing is alternately crisp and swirly. This year, the pretty pas de deux with Luksik and Roethlisberger had a few bobbles here and there, but that didn't diminish the magic.
My only complaint is that a few of the variations in Act II are crowded. For the Spanish and Arabian dances, four younger dancers share the stage with the lead couples. While the girls all acquit themselves nicely, it's a bit distracting. I think the variations would be stronger if they were streamlined. Shannon Quirk and Cody Olsen do very good work here as the Arabian couple. The pas de deux is genuinely sexy, and Quirk is very intense, her flexible and beautifully articulated limbs twining around Olsen. As the Russian soloist, Jacob Ashley displayed thrilling leaps, high-flying cabrioles and remarkable tours en l'air in a tucked position. As the Dewdrop Fairy, Custer Weeks' confidence was matched by her strong technique. She was a lovely sight as she glided down the corridor created by the dancing flowers. The corps de ballet is pretty here as well. Each dancer crosses the stage individually, helping you appreciate the depth of talent that Smith has in his company.
Luksik and Roethlisberger reunited for the very tricky grand pas de deux. They both looked a bit relieved when things went smoothly. With live accompaniment, Luksik gets to play with her timing. While she capably attacks the flashy sequences, a few smaller details thrilled me the most, like a spirited pas de chat after holding a defiant and proud balance in arabesque and some finger turns that seemed to slow down magically, mid-turn, so you can appreciate her form.
Cute children in fantastic costumes are always an enjoyable sight, particularly if they are dancing well. Smith knows how to choreograph for kids, highlighting their strengths and not pushing them into steps that are beyond their skills. By doing this, he lets them focus on the joy of performing. From the sweet baby mice wagging their tails to the soldiers and rodents fighting with aplomb to the two tiny party guests who received an "awww" from the crowd, these young dancers all contributed to the success of this gratifying production.