Entertainment » Theatre

George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Dec 21, 2017
George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'

The Academy of Music was crowded with joyous young girls in tutus for an early evening performance of Pennsylvania Ballet's George Balanchine's 1954 version of "The Nutcracker," that he created for New York City Ballet, and Pennsylvania Ballet is one of the few companies that is licensed to perform it.

It is always instructive to catch a performance of PAB's extended near month-long run of "Nutcracker" midway, to see if it continues to hit cruise control or loses some of its initial luster. PAB artistic director Angel Corella, in his third year mounting it, is able to showcase the many newer dancers in the company by having them switch off a variety of roles during the three-week run. "Nutcracker" is also a barometer of where the company is with the Balanchine artistry in variations of his pristine brand of neoclassicism.

Corella's stamp is most evident in the Act I Christmas party scene, which can just lumber along with the ritualized pantomime that Balanchine kept under glass from the Russian Imperial Ballet.

This production picks up the pace and animates with engaging stage business to fill in any lulls in the party scene. At the center is Marie's ornery brother Fritz, played by Rowan Duffy, a natural actor and a gifted dancer. Fritz is the dodgy mischief maker and life of this dance party. Also stellar are Mishca Charov's Marie, the girl with the Christmas dreams of her Prince, and Liam Agnew as her most attendant Nutcracker Prince.

Alexei Babayev plays wonderfully against his danseur type in a star turn as mysterious Herr Drosselmeir who swoops in under a grand cape and unveils his magic wind-up dolls. First we see Harlequin and Columbine in mechanical balletics, performed with flash dance pointe precision by Marjorie Feiring and So-Jung Shin. Russell Drucker's tin soldier dance-drill thrills with flat-footed jumps and lunges.

Choreographically the weakest section of the ballet is Balanchine's Mouse battle, but it clips right along in this production with equal doses of mayhem and humor. And all along conductor Beatrice Jona Affron is keeping Tchaikovsky's score at a gallop, without sacrificing detail, spiking it in the Academy of Music and otherwise fueling the dancers. Everyone in this animated ensemble, children, corps members and leads were up to the pace.

And then the real dancing begins with the Snowflake scene featuring the full corps, with the Philadelphia Boys Choir filling the first tier loft boxes to serenade the corps de ballet women. Their esprit was vivid, and while the formations were a bit hazy in the front half, they crystallized for the quick-tempo ensemble patterns.

Act II commences in the Land of the Sweets, with its dance divertissement populated with storybook character dancing. First though are the littlest dance angels, floating around the stage with their stars as the Sugar Plum Fairy has her first solo. Principal Mayara Pineiro is commanding from the start, her adagio pointe work flawless and her deportment luminous.

Balanchine's Spanish 'Hot Chocolate' tarantella for five couples, is a too brief a Balanchine flash dance. Leads Craig Wasserman and Kathyrn Manger seemed a bit underpowered, but the overall effect was dazzling. The Marzipan Shepardesses, similarly, looked a bit wayward in key points in this performance. Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles followed, and the students from the PA Ballet school were front and center to display their ballet skills.

Alexandra Hughes' captivated in her Dewdrop solo; even with some blurry technique, her full-throttle performance captivated. Marjorie Feiring and Misa Kasamatsu also made the most of the duet interludes in front of the geometric patterns of Balanchine's corps de ballet sections.

Other soloist highlights included Elizabeth Wallace as Coffee, whose lithe arabesque spirals and sultry contortions hypnotized. Etienne Diaz lead the troupe of Candy Canes in the hoop dance and even though he was wobbly on those deceptively simple mid-air hoop twisters, he nailed all of the double skips with such precision the audience exploded.

In the finale, Pineiro is joined by Zecheng Liang as her Cavalier. Liang joined PB's corps de ballet just this season and showed instant prowess in Balanchine's virtuosic central pas de deux. Laing struggled on some of the positioning during the duet turns. Mostly though, this couple thrilled with their interpretive artistry and unfussy technique.

The handsome production design by Peter Horne and costumes by Judanna Lynn are first rate and a perfect fit for the opera jewel-box environs of Philadelphia's historic Academy of Music.

Pennsylvania Ballet's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" runs through December 31 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. Philadelphia PA. For tickets or information, call 215-893-1999 or visit www.paballet.org

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.


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