LA Ballet: A Nutcracker from the City of Angels
by Steven Woodruff
LOS ANGELES BALLET'S Nutcracker is making its appointed rounds this December with performances in Glendale, Westwood and Redondo Beach. And though it is a professional company it shares some of the shortcomings and successes of the many versions on display locally. Artistic Directors Collen Neary and Thordahl Christensen have set their version in 1912 Los Angeles, but there is little in the actual production that concretely binds the action to that time period or place. The bigger problems have to do with the overall flatness of much of the action, a lusterless set in Act I, and the slice and dice editing of the music in Act II, which makes for a very disappointing diminishment of the Grand Pas de Deux and leaves out the Mirlitons and their music altogether. To be fair, the Tarantella and Sugar Plum Fairy Variation do make an appearance but they are out of place in the beginning of Act II in this production and spoil the arc of music and dance that should conclude with the Grand Pas de Deux. This is what classicism is all about and the Nutcracker is after all a supremely classical ballet. Ms. Neary commented briefly on Tchaikovsky's "timeless music" in her remarks from the stage in introducing the production; I only wish that she really believed in them enough to refrain from cutting and reorganizing the score.
There were many bright spots along the way though. The Harlequin and Columbine choreography was delightful and was danced well by Tyler Burkett and Katrina Gould. They return in the Act II for the music usually assigned to the Chinese Variation. Here, Burkett survived a rough moment managing his turns in second. Sergey Khelik was also excellent as the Cossack Doll. He too returns, joined by two men, as part of the Trepak Variation in Act II. He seems to enjoy his dancing more now that he is performing as a guest artist and no longer with the company. He covers the Russian stuff with authority, athleticism and dazzle. The Waltz of the Flowers and The Snowflakes Waltz both fared well though you could have wished for more generous cast of dancers in both. Particularly good was Allyssa Bross as The Rose, who lit up the stage with her genuine performance and did everything with virtuosity in her demi-soloist role. She was one of the believers who seemed to find the enchantment and show it. Also deserving kudos were Julia Cinquemani and Alexander Castillo in the Arabian Variation. The choreography gave them the sinuosity and intimacy reflected in the music. Their lifts were elegant, sure, and struck a perfect balance of control and extroversion. One lift as Cinquemani rolls over her partner's back and ends up in attitude penchée looked terrific. The Spanish Variation was the least successful of the diversions in Act II. Generic, posing positions with a flamenco flare and fans, in the end, proved not enough to take you there.
Faring poorly in the acting department were Ms. Neary as Mrs. Stalbaum who was bland and unconvincing in the Act One Party Scene. Helena Thordal Christensen as Clara seemed not to know what to do with herself during much of the Battle Scene and looked like a bystander throughout when not accomplishing her assigned steps. I found Clara being seated downstage with her Nutcracker to be a serious distraction during Snow, and the endless running in place to get there a terrifically distracting bit of staging. Jonathan Sharp's Drosselmeyer was heavily invested in caricature without any apparent purpose. In his white suit and full-length white fur coat, he looked overly campy, even disturbing, rather than the likeable and quirky master of ceremonies for a child's fantasy. Soloists Zheng Hua Li as the Prince and Monica Pelfrey as Marie danced with clarity and refined classical style but failed to convince us that they were truly in a world apart in the truncated and disappointing Grand Pas de Deux.
The production's costuming was one unfailing point of brilliance. Mikael Melbye's magical costumes delivered, at every turn, a sense of fantasy, sumptuousness and invention. I particularly liked the spiny headpieces for the women in Snow, the domed headpiece for the Arabian male dancer, and the monochrome, lengthy tutus in Flowers. The outfitting of the Battle Scene --mice and soldiers-- looked striking too. Finally bringing a touch of fantasy to the production was Catherine Kanner's Act II sets which delivered us to a spacious, colonaded court looking out over a moonlit sea.
I'm a musician by training. I like to see the choreography make the music be important. This didn't always happen. I felt particularly cut adrift during the music concluding the Battle Scene. These moments satisfy us with the most beautiful music of Act One and they are pivotal to the developing fantasy. The solemn chords in the brass and the romantic sweep are the pathway to Snow and all the enchantment that is still to come. In this production virtually nothing is happening in these moments save two soldiers waving blue flags in the gloom of a very dark stage. It was a heartbreaking moment, and for all the wrong reasons.
I wish desperately for a Los Angeles Nutcracker with real music. I don't know if it can happen but I know L.A. Ballet has a talented company of dancers and more resources than most small companies. Meanwhile there is lots of vitality to be found in many of the regional companies presenting their takes on this great ballet. Some of them are doing versions with excellent staging and choreography every bit as good as that offered by L.A. Ballet. Take in one… or two of them. There will be moments that will make you feel glad you did! And keep wishing hard for the real music and the musicians who play it.
(The reviewed performance took place on December 5, 2010 at The Alex Theatre in Glendale, CA. Long Beach Ballet opens its Nutcracker later this month with performances in Long Beach and Pasadena. Their production will feature a live orchestra.)