State Street Ballet “Nutcracker “ Has Both Sparkle and Disappointments

reviewed by Steven Woodruff

The dance blizzard that is the American “Nutcracker” season is drawing to a close. State Street Ballet has been busy with its version traveling to Spokane and Durango. They closed this past weekend at home at the Granada Theater in Santa Barbara with three thronging performances liberally filled with students from the company’s school. But in spite of worthy sets, generous costuming, and the excellent music played by the Opera San Luis Obispo Orchestra accompanied by The Morro Bay High School Chorus, this “Nutcracker” offered as many highlights as disappointments.

The production is a valiant one, but one that doesn’t really ignite or find a consistent classical center. The biggest disappointment came in Act I where the action for the battle scene was woefully underpowered. This production features a Rat Queen (Samantha Bell in Sunday’s performance) but the direction makes more of a bystander of her. With costuming that felt dressed for burlesque, the role felt short on regal spirit and the essential camaraderie connecting her and the small army of mice. Mirroring that moment in Act II was a Mother Ginger whose theatrical impact was lessened by the absence of a supersized dress and the hidden crew of BonBons.

Act I, which is supported by lots of dancing enthusiastically contributed by the Gustafson School children, had a promising beginning with the party girls on pointe looking capable and confident. Some of the storytelling fell by the wayside. Where do the boys get those cutlasses with which they ruin the girl’s party during the slumber music. Those scenes lost some of their effect with music that was cut. And do you really want a street dancing Grandmother going for easy laughs in a classical ballet. Some of that inconsistent staging comes back in the second act “Waltz of the Flowers’ with the anachronistic quartet of men dancing in modern tuxedos. They looked buoyant and moved beautifully as an ensemble among the lilac and yellowed costumed corps but you could wonder why they were there in the midst of a classical fantasy. When little Clara wakes at the end of Act II why is she not back home where the journey of imagination began? We are left with a narrative that feels vague and at odds with itself. It may be a fantastical story but it still needs to make sense.

In Act II, Leila Drake and Dylan Santos found the sultry composed center of the world of the harem girl and her keeper with their focused dancing in the Arabian variation.  They were the surest of the second act variations, which also reprised some of the music from the opening overture. The four Mirlitons were both stylish and unified in their gracious, mannered dancing, while the two Spanish dancers (Samantha Bell and Anna Carnes) riffed convincingly on moves from Don Quixote flourishing their fans in the en manège movements circuiting the stage. They were a polished pair but the variation missed a male presence.

Principal roles of the Sugar Plum and Cavalier for the “Grand Pas de Deux” were danced by Kate Kadow and Ryan Camou. Kadow brought genuine brilliance to her role with multiple pirouettes that were always perfect. Grabbing lots of stage time in the role of Clara was student dancer Lola Crist.  She shone brightest in her choreographed steps and proved an able partner for the young Fritz, Herr Drosselmeyer, and the Nutcracker Prince. With a small corps de ballet, “Snow” managed a hesitant illusion of plenty and, at times felt short on the sweep of romantic appeal. State Street Ballet Artistic Director Rodney Gustafson, Gary McKenzie (who also played Drosselmeyer), and Marina Feliagina created the choreography and staging for the production.

There were lots of joyous children’s faces in this “Nutcracker”. Multiple casts showed the school has lots of interested young students.They created a vibrant presence. One girl dancing in the angel choir that opens Act II broadcast had a megawatt smile that let you know she was having the time of her life. That’s a memory that’s probably going to stick with her. It did for me.

(The reviewed performance took place in Santa Barbara on December 22, 2013. Other credits include: lighting Mark Somerfield, costumes A. Christina Giannini, Ben-Oni Cortes, Anaya Cullen. Sets by Daniel Nyiri and Yuri Samodurov.The orchestra was conducted by Brian Asher Alhadeff. Colleen Wall is the director of the nineteen voice Morro Bay High School Chorus. The music was first rate. Photos in the gallery are by Kathee Miller.)


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