The Glorious, Festive Nutcracker
And with that, on we go to my review of this year's outing, which happens to fall on the opening night of the run. This means that you can compare my review to those found in all the major Toronto media outlets and find out all the good stuff that they missed! (yeah, right....)
But first, the obligatory announcement.
Conflict of Interest Alert: Robert Stephen is my nephew.
Now that we have that out of the way....
Right in the first minute, the show hit a technical snag and they kept happening all through the first act -- half a dozen different details all going wrong at once. You'd think it was Friday the 13th! But just one of those glitches stood out in my memory as critical to the impact of the show. The transition to the second scene of Act 1, the magical dissolve of the bedroom into the birch forest, was spoiled by the very loud squealing of the overhead hardware drawing the backdrop and wing pieces in and out. It seems that the production is beginning to show its age.
Nothing of the kind needs to be said about the choreography and staging. It still teems with catchy invention, most of all in the Russian-folk-inspired dances of Act 1. Also inspired was Kudelka's choice to have the magical adventure shared by a brother and sister. A strong dose of sibling rivalry adds both realism and fun throughout the party scene.
Let's start right there, with the two leading child roles. Both Marie (Sophie Alexander) and Misha (Simon Adamson DeLuca) have to do some fairly intricate choreography -- a notable departure from what one often sees in other stagings. The choreography not only expresses their contrasting personalities but also adds much interest to the show. Both Alexander and DeLuca captured the petulance, the comedy, and the moments of wonder in their roles.
Their friend, Peter, the stable boy, was danced with great success by Skylar Campbell. More than some dancers I've seen in the role, he clearly brought out the dreamer in the young man as well as the practical and playful sides of the character. That, as it turns out, is a critical bridge towards the second act of the ballet. When he completes the metamorphosis into the Nutcracker Prince, the grace he showed in his dreamy solo at the beginning combined with his youthful romantic ardour to become the keynotes of his entire performance.
Baba, the children's nurse, was played with great energy by Rebekah Rimsay. Her folk dances with Campbell were a whirl of flying feet and flying skirts, and great fun to watch. Baba is a mix of character work and choreography, and Rimsay was equally successful at finding the 101 shades of frustration as Baba struggles to keep track of her feisty young charges.
Where Peter has some passages of classical choreography, Uncle Nikolai (the magician) is nearly all folk-dance in style, and very energetic. There was a clear streak of joyful fun and mischief in Robert Stephen's depiction of the character. There was also energy a-plenty in such moments as the long chain of pirouettes or the stamping dance with his horse (which is animated by two dancers).
After the madly complicated battle scene, which really can't and shouldn't be rationally analyzed, the set and music dramatically change character together and the chains of harp roulades introduce the Snow Queen (Alexandra MacDonald) and her two Icicles (Brent Parolin and Nan Wang). These three dance the first purely classical number of the entire ballet, a pas de trois which this trio made just as magical as the snow-glistening birch forest in which they danced.
The succeeding Waltz of the Snowflakes continues in a white scene in the classic mode. This is the great moment of the show for the corps de ballet, and the dancers excelled in the grace of their dancing while carrying out all the complicated intersecting patterns required by the choreographer. The slow return of the Snow Queen and the Icicles at the very end of the scene was as light, airy and delicate as you could want.
Act Two opens, after a short entrance number, with the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Jillian Vanstone brought much energy and a strong sense of joy to this solo.
Act Two features many short dances, in the traditional mode of the divertissement or entertainment, each one performed by different dancers. I always look forward to the Arabian Coffee number, one of the most utterly graceful dances I have ever seen anywhere -- and last night's dancers did it full justice (sadly, the programme doesn't sort out these smaller roles by who-danced-which-date).
Chelsy Meiss and Giorgio Galli generated plenty of humour and energy in the duet of the winsome Sheep being chased by a half-dangerous, half-amorous Fox. Of course, the youngest children of the show, as a flock of sheep were totally adorable in this number -- how could they not be?
Jordana Daumec was notable for her crisp darting changes of direction as the Bee that introduces the Waltz of the Flowers.
All this leads up to the grand adagio which opens the pas de deux of the Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Campbell and Vanstone formed a fine partnership here. Again, this is purely classical choreography. The deep passion and longing in the music was exactly mirrored in their performance, transforming what might be just another showstopper into a true emotional journey. And the slow-motion final moves in the sustained coda were rock-solid as well as heartfelt.
Throughout the show, the National Ballet orchestra under guest conductor Paul Hoskins played the score with all their accustomed verve and power.
It's interesting to me that I haven't seen most of the dancers I've discussed dancing these particular roles before, although none are role debuts. Each year brings forth its own surprises and delights.
All in all, a fine performance of this traditional Christmas favourite from all involved.