LONG BEACH BALLET'S Nutcracker, A Thronging Cast with Live Music
Reviewed by Steven Woodruff
Pasadena Civic Auditorium
December 22, 2010
LONG BEACH BALLET concluded its season of performances with two programs in the vast spaces of the Pasadena Civic Auditorium. David Wilcox , the Artistic director of the company, has fashioned a sprawling version of the ballet which is populated with a huge cast of dancers drawn from the school of the LONG BEACH BALLET, its resident performing company and a handful of guest artists. The most recent installment of The New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay, in his national tour of Nutcrackers, commented on the delights of productions with excellent children and student dancers covering the major roles. He should have stopped off in Long Beach to see Wilcox’s cast which offers a show with lots of heart and often some very fine dancing. What is remarkable is that there are so many of them, even in the second act where a logical paring down of forces helps focus on the details of style. Two of those ACT II divertissements, the Dance of the Merlitons and the Russian Trepak, are performed with normal sized ensembles which comes as a relief from the sometimes overpopulated choreography.
Wilcox does not set his Nutcracker in any specified time or place. It looks vaguely 19th Century and follows the story straightforwardly with no rearrangements or deletions in the music. The staging moves along efficiently. The only bit of awkwardness is at the conclusion of Act II as Clara returns home, where the transition seemed slightly artificial. On hand for all performances in Long Beach and Pasadena was a large and capable pick up orchestra conducted by Dr. Roger Hickman. And while the performance was not brilliant it did provide a richness and vitality that has been missing in many local productions using the ubiquitous taped substitute. The use of enhanced sound proved a distraction especially for those seated in the front of the orchestra.
Wilcox’s Nutcracker bustles with activity from beginning to end. He uses the music well to fill the stage and connect the big moments while at the same timing offering very theatrical and convincing miming that rings true. These young dancers seem involved in their story. It makes the Act I Party Scene seem believable and genuine. Less effective was the Battle Scene where the massive forces of soldiers overwhelmed mice in chubby costumes. The hoped for chaos of a battle of thousands devolved into a static showdown punctuated with some impressive on stage explosions. Savannah Louis as Clara danced and acted her way through both acts convincingly. Julian Sanz and Megan Wilcox were also capable as the Harlequin and Columbine Dolls. Maurice Watson as the Moor Doll seemed labored and struggled with the athletic choreography. Less convincing were Craig Rexroad as the Mouse King whose lack of animation made dull a part that should feel full of physical menace, and Ben Majors as Uncle Drosselmeyer, whose buffoonish take on the part left us with little more than a working caricature.
The corps gave a hard working account of Waltz of the Snowflakes (choreography by Terri Lewis) which was full of coming and going and all the kaleidoscopic effects that the moment requires. I was moved by the generous, effortful dancing in the student ensemble who clearly felt the importance of the big time ballet moment and dug down deep to stay aloft and together. Jacie Jewett and Evan Swenson were capable as The Snow Queen and King though they at times seemed over challenged by the partnering which did not always go smoothly. At the conclusion the snow fell and so did the wall of fiery live embers as Clara heads off in her airborne sleigh.
Everything big continues into Act II, including the very large white horse in a walk-on part which completes the sleigh journey. Most impressive were the Merlitons (choreography by Lewis) lead by the excellent Anna Wassman who lent the ensemble of five with authority in the realm of classical style and refined gesture. Lighting up Flowers was a quartet of smartly attired cavaliers (Leonid Leonidovich Flegmatov, James Pfleger, Julian Sanz and Evan Swenson) who all were excellent with tours, turns and sure partnering. Melissa Sandvig as the Dewdrop Fairy completed the picture with stylish dancing and personal radiance in her demi soloist role. The choreography (Wilcox) was rich and offered the full measure of a big classical ensemble supported by great music. I especially liked the cross-stage tour jetés and the overall design which reminded me of the Waltz of the Flowers in William Christensen’s first American Nutcracker (1944) for San Francisco Ballet.
All of the divertissements in Act II had something to offer. Spanish was notable for its corps of dancers which offered strength in numbers and was a thronging backdrop to the two soloists Jennifer Lopez and Michael Sorenson, who were convincing in their cross handed turns and flashy poses . The Chinese Dance, and the Russian Trepak both used brief extensions of the music to accommodate theatrical enhancements and a bit of extra dance. The Chinese dance ( Tiffany Kuehl and Teddy Watler) with its added attendants was especially charming. Christina Jones was sinuous and provocative as the Arabian harem dancer and proved too much for her handler, Ben Majors, whose disengaged partnering left the overall effort wanting. The towering Mother Ginger (Hilde Byrne) and her massive brood made good on the essential comedy in her part but couldn’t avoid collisions with the scenery in the exits and entrances. Even the little things have to go well if you want to keep the magic alive.
Rachel Riley and Kyohei Yoshida, both on loan as soloists from Grand Rapids Ballet, were excellent in the Grand Pas de Deux. I liked especially Yoshida’s sustained and relaxed tempo in the Tarantella which he filled with turns and double tours in succession. Riley in the Sugar Plum Variation was full of complexity but also caution. The partnered sections in the opening music and in the Coda fared well. Both dancers managed to produce the romanticism and the big lifts and turning combinations with confidence.
Adding to the joys of this Nutcracker were the full scale sets and luxurious costumes . Both were consistently imaginative. Especially impressive was the Act II set, a Baroque architectural environment with clouds hung in a sunset sky. The scenery of Act I explodes to produce a dramatic transformation of the Stahlbaum family living room into the battle scene and the revelation of the Nutcracker Doll and Prince. The growing Christmas tree gives us the essential ingredient in making Clara’s fantasy seem possible. It was beautifully staged. The designs were by Elliott Hessayon, Rex Heuschkel and Scott Shaffer. Costume designs by Donna Dickens, Adrian Clarke and Anna De Farra were elegant and offered in profusion. The big emerald tutus of the Merlitons were particularly rich. I also liked the Degas-styled long tutus in pink,fuchsia and peach in Flowers.
Wilcox has devoted himself to a very theatrical version of the Nutcracker. It is more entertaining than most and you can’t help but admire the quality of the dancers as well as their sheer numbers. And while I am not a fan of fireworks or live animals on stage, it is clear that Wilcox has made for himself and his adventurous company a version faithful to the ballet’s classical intent and one that seems true to itself. The last time I felt so wrapped up in the Nutcracker was when the Joffrey Ballet brought their Currier and Ives inspired version to The Music Center. And that’s one you should see too if you get the chance.
(Photo by Michael Khoury)