Dance Review: THE NUTCRACKER (American Contemporary Ballet; Santa Fe Ballet; Long Beach Ballet)

by Marc Wheeler on December 17, 2019

in Dance,Theater-Los Angeles

TRIPLE-CRACKED

It wouldn’t be the holidays without The Nutcracker ballet, a wondrous fantasia limited in scope only by imagination — or, more practically, budget. This year I attended three separate SoCal productions: L.A.’s own American Contemporary Ballet’s sparkling condensed jewel and Santa Fe Ballet’s disappointing tour both pared down the work, while Long Beach Ballet blew it up larger than the Stahlbaum family Christmas tree.

Originally based on Alexandre Dumas’s version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s novella “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the famous ballet – which premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892 under the direction of Ivan Vzevolozhsky with compositions by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — has become a seasonal treat for audiences of all ages. With original choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, this family-friendly classic has spawned countless adaptations since its popular rise in the 1960s, featuring many recognizable numbers, including the stately “March,” the Russian-themed “Trepak,” and the iconic music box-chiming “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.”

While companies and choreographers often put their own spin on the work — Royal Ballet, Joffrey, Wheeldon, SF Ballet, and Balanchine to name a few — the traditional story is simple: On Christmas Eve in a quaint German town, the Stahlbaum family is hosting a party for their many guests. As the Stahlbaum children, Clara and Fritz, are playing, their mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer, a magician, arrives and shows off his latest inventions, including a beautiful nutcracker he imparts to Clara. Later that night, Clara returns from her bed to grab her new prized possession. Following a quick shut-eye, she awakens to a magical world in which she’s whisked away by the Nutcracker Prince, encountering an army of mice, a beautiful dance between the Snow Queen and King, and many worldly enchantments in the Sugarplum Kingdom. While this Christmas adventure eventually comes to an end, her childlike imagination — and ours — lives on.

AMERICAN CONTEMPORARY BALLET

It’s no coincidence that American Contemporary Ballet is producing The Nutcracker Suite. Not only is the production performed in a small, industrial space the size of a suite, it’s also short-and-sweet and seductively sugary. It could just as easily be named The Nutcracker Sweet. Instead of opting for the full two-act ballet, they’ve scaled the work down to eleven song-and-dance numbers arranged chamber-style specifically for ACB, and performed by seven talented instrumentalists and two unseen vocalists. Plot is gone. And instead of watching a staged Christmas Eve party scene, attendees are treated to their own champagne soirée before the dancers take the stage.

The beauty of this production, conceived and choreographed by Lincoln Jones, is its intimate elegance. By stripping away extravagance and focusing primarily on atmosphere, music, and movement, the work takes on an adult sophistication. An entirely white room in Downtown L.A., magically decorated by Max Jezek and Zach Titterington as a winter wonderland, is lit gorgeously in a stark blue hue, imbuing both the cozy performance space and dancers with a heavenly glow. Less than a hundred attendees — treated to sugary sweets over the course of the experience — are seated three rows deep, mere feet away from the classically trained, sumptuous dancers, magnifying every poetic curve of a limb or quiver of a foot en pointe. It’s not only beautiful, but we appreciate the diligent artistry even more.

The dancers’ graceful bodies appear delicate even in their obvious strength. Notable stand-outs include a spirited Misa Cohen (alternating with Cammi Malicse) as Baby Ginger, and Madeline Houk and Joshua Brown, who — with poise and agility — portray the Sugarplum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince. Dressed in Ruoxuan Li’s attire which merely hints at their characters, the cast further exemplifies the minimalist aesthetic.

While the overall experience is certainly a fresh, unconventional, sophisticated way to appreciate Tchaikovsky’s magnificence and ballet as an art form, prices for this hour-long work seem a bit steep. That said, for its refined, unique approach to a festive holiday classic, ACB’s The Nutcracker Suite is a delectable, wintry treat.

LONG BEACH BALLET

If there’s a definitive production of The Nutcracker, Long Beach Ballet’s holiday spectacular may very well be it. If it’s not, it’s certainly what a person – whether or not they’ve ever even seen the work – could imagine a definitive production being. Set in the giant Terrace Theater at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, it has everything for which one could hope: incredible dancers, elaborate sets and costumes, special effects, and more. For crying out loud, a literal horse walks across the stage, folks — come on!

Now in its 37th season, this annual in-house production — conceived, choreographed, and artistically directed by David Wilcox, with additional choreography by Terri Lewis — has slightly morphed over the years, yet consistently offers Southern California audiences a full-blown holiday extravaganza that one could love, cherish, and return to year after year.

A vast creative team both on- and off-stage come together to make the holiday magic happen. The scenery is gorgeous, lit dramatically by Jared A. Sayeg, taking us from the Stahlbaum family’s parlor — featuring an (increasingly) extravagant Christmas tree — to the celestial realms of the Land of Sweets (set design by Elliott Hessayon, Rex Heuschkel, and Scott Shaffer). Costumes (Adrian Clarke, Donna Dickens, Ann de Farra, Hilde Byrne, Cheryl Cartwright, and Debi Humphries) range from terrifying mice to worldly wonders. Mike Costa’s technical direction and John Bordeaux’s pyrotechnics add additional flare to an already boisterous production. The 58-member Long Beach Ballet Orchestra, under the baton of Dr. Roger Hickman, gives Tchaikovsky’s score the lushness it deserves.

The cast is enormous, featuring tiny tots and seasoned adults alike putting their best selves forward to ensure a wondrous experience. Dana Pugh is hilarious as the maid, while Evan Swenson and Hailey Pemberton deliver a fairy-tale gentility as the Snow King and Queen. As lively Russian dancers, David Block, Julian Sanz, and Brent Shavelle trade leaps and kicks for enthusiastic applause. In the Grand Pas de Deux set to arguably the most romantically rich piece in the score, Seth Orza as the Nutcracker Prince and Sarah Ricard Orza as the Sugarplum Fairy (both appearing courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet), command the stage with power and heart.

The timelessness of Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday classic can be found in this majestic production. If there’s one Nutcracker you must see, this is it.

ASPEN SANTA FE BALLET

Making its Los Angeles debut for a single weekend, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s simple touring production of The Nutcracker (now in its 23rd season back home in Colorado) came to The Soraya at California State University, Northridge for one weekend.

Featuring students from the Los Angeles Youth Ballet and USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, this Victorian-era production features a giant children’s storybook framing the piece, a carousel setting for the second act, and a few international performers.

The Nutcracker is a fantastical work requiring over-the-top spectacle, especially when presented traditionally — as it is here. But spectacle is exactly what’s missing from this iteration: Roger Lavoie’s sets, lit by Seah Johnson, are drenched in color but appear flimsy; Instead of a live orchestra, we get an an indistinct track from sound designer Sam Chittenden; and though choreography by ASFB’s artistic and executive directors Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty, respectively, is danced proficiently by the ensemble, far too many performers forgo emotional engagement, signaling to the audience: another year, another Nutcracker. Even many of the children, including Clara (Nadia Gruhlke, alternating with Brynn Iby), “play” kids rather than simply be them.

There are some notable exceptions: an infectiously entertaining Zach Manske brings an athletic dynamism to Jack in the Box, literally springing the work to life, and Spanish dancer La Emi is enchantingly engaging with her Flamenco-style moves. Certain costumes (Brianna Fristoe, wardrobe), are also quite beautiful. But with a relatively cheap, uninspiring aesthetic and multiple phoned-in performances, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s touring production may make first-time Nutcracker attendees wonder what the fuss is all about.

The Nutcracker with Full Orchestra
Long Beach Ballet
Terrace Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd. in Long Beach
ends on December 22, 2019
for tickets ($34 – $115), visit LB Nutcracker
photos courtesy of Long Beach Ballet

The Nutcracker Suite
American Contemporary Ballet (ACB)
The Metropolis Los Angeles, 877 S. Francisco St, Upper Level
ends on December 24, 2019
for tickets ($55 – $123), visit ACB Dances
photos by Anastasia Petukhova

The Nutcracker
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
played December 7 & 8, 2019, at The Soraya in Northridge
for tour dates and cities, and more shows, visit ASFB
photos by Luis Luque

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