By Jane Rosenberg
Without snow drifts, fir and spruce trees, or chilling temperatures, we, in Los Angeles, must make do with a Christmas season of brilliant sunshine, swaying palms, and stately cypresses. Happily, we have the Los Angeles Ballet to bring us a taste of the holiday with their annual Nutcracker.
With charming costumes by Mikael Melbye and pleasant sets by Catherine Kanner, this production is reimagined by artistic directors, Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary, and set in 1912 Los Angeles.
When Drosselmeyer, danced by Nicolas de la Vega, swept into the Stahlbaum’s living room in his floor length fur, I wondered if 1912 Los Angeles enjoyed cooler temperatures. (Also puzzling were the snow-laden trees outside the living room windows.) The fur, however, would have worked perfectly, had the production been set a few years later and Drosselmeyer been cast as a Hollywood, silent-era film director or actor, complete with camera and tripod. After all, what is a moviemaker but a magician – a perfect metaphor for Drosselmeyer? If this was the intention, then Vega had the exaggerated mannerisms of a Valentino heartthrob and the looks to match. His toymaker was all enthusiasm, hugs, and bravado – the menacing quality of the character found in most productions (and in E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale) dispensed with.
In the first act, the cast of children, beautifully coached and surprisingly natural, was a true pleasure. As the troublesome Fritz, Aidan Merchel-Zoric, was deliciously spoiled and raucous. His troop of mischievous boys let loose and enjoyed themselves without inhibition. Seventeen-year-old Mia Katz, in the role of Clara, portrayed a teen-ager on the verge of maturity and eager for new experiences. As the parents of the two youngsters, Colleen Neary and former NYCB principal, Adam Lüders, were a benevolent and touching pair.
In a nice Upstairs, Downstairs touch, two butlers (David Renaud and Brent Slacke-Wolfe) passed champagne and cavorted with Chaplinesque footwork, then partnered a pair of hip-wiggling maids (Andrea Bell and Chelsea Paige Johnston). Danced ebulliently by David Block, the Nutcracker was no passive wooden toy but a life-size doll. When poked and prodded by Fritz, in a hilarious twist, the Nutcracker swiftly poked him back.
This Nutcracker was all goodwill, the darker shades of the original story absent. Even the mice felt more Walt Disney than Tim Burton, particularly in what appeared to be a mouse Conga-line-dance as they playfully snaked around the room or perched cozily on Clara’s bed while she slept. Unfortunately, with the menace absent, the subsequent battle scene lost its power, deteriorating into goofiness and undefined patterns.
The corps de ballet looked crisp and radiant as the Snowflakes at the end of Act One and charming in the “Waltz of the Flowers” in the second act. With Clara and the Nutcracker’s throne partially obscuring my view of the action in Act Two and the columns at the back of the stage taking up space, the dancing seemed cramped rather than expansive. Though the female corps had solid technique, I found the use of the hands, in general, rather awkward – less graceful extensions of the arms, more distracting punctuation marks. This held true for the female principals and soloists as well. As the Rose in the flower waltz, Bianca Bulle, replacing Allynne Noelle, performed admirably.
Rather than the Sugar Plum Fairy, (we are in the Land of Dolls rather than the Candy Land of most productions) we have Clara’s doll, Marie, performed by a radiant Allyssa Bross. One wished for more subtlety and pathos in her performance, however. Tchaikovsky’s score, at its most melancholy in this pas de deux, is certainly a clue that this is a singular moment in the ballet when Clara is invited to witness what mature love is all about – romance, joy, and heartbreak all at once. As Marie’s Prince, Kenta Shimizu, was an excellent partner, dancing with style, grace, and subtle power.
The Land of Dolls of Act Two was a curious locale: a vaguely Persian environment with turbaned inhabitants. Though a duo of heralds, portrayed as movie cliché eunuchs, kept looking out to sea, Clara, the Nutcracker, and Drosselmeyer, arrived by sled. The Act Two divertissements were well danced.
The Arabian coffee divertissement is always a crowd pleaser and this one was no exception. Alexander Castillo tirelessly partnered a sinuous Julia Cinquemani in a dizzying series of lifts and embraces. As the Harlequin and Columbine dolls of Act One and Two, Robert Mulvey and Isabel Vondermuhll were a piquant pair, and the Russian dancers led by Dustin True (also dancing the Cossack doll in Act One) were skilled, throwing themselves into the leaping, spinning choreography. Mother Ginger became Mother Gingerbread, her skirts a gingerbread house, her head poking out of a candied chimney. Her doors opened to reveal a troop of happy Hansels and Gretels – a revisionist take on the imprisoned fairy tale siblings. Nevertheless, it was nifty change of pace and a striking visual.
One has to applaud this young company, now in its eighth season, for securing a place in the ballet firmament. One would wish, however, that in future, they could raise the funds to bring live music into the equation. No matter how well the Los Angeles Ballet dances The Nutcracker, without a live orchestra to perform Tchaikovsky’s lustrous score, they cannot hope to glow as bright as their promise.
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Art by Jane Rosenberg. Photo by Reed Hutchinson.
To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets. Jane is also the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.