Pennsylvania Ballet cracks The Nutcracker on opening night

Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

by Lewis J. Whittington for The Dance Journal

Although The Nutcracker remains the most popular of story ballets and continues as the annual money-making warhorse for many ballet companies, it isn’t the holiday ritual for audiences it once was. Even George Balanchine’s vaulted version, going strong now for almost 60 years, must compete with a slate of other holiday shows in December.

Pennsylvania Ballet is one of the companies licensed to perform it and there is tight control over keeping it to Mr. Balanchine’s standards. It has held up as a good barometer of his aesthetic, employing the full company of dancers, within its mash-up of imperial ballet classicism of Balanchine’s youth. Still, it needs to be dusted off more each year, as tastes change, to attract new audiences.

Balanchine himself danced the first small roles as a young boy in choreographer Lev Ivanov’s original 1892 Russian production at the storied Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. As a student in the Imperial school, Balanchine proved himself a formidable character dancer in many Nutcracker roles and danced the Nutcracker Prince at 15. He created his own version for American audiences as a centerpiece New York City Ballet repertoire in 1954.  Secondary to Balanchine version is E.T.A. Hoffmann’s melodramatic story about a young girl with sugar plums and nightmares dancing in her head.

For contemporary audiences, Act I plods along with all of the gestural storytelling and pantomimed depictions of a Christmas party that displays the traditions of privileged European families. A venerated way station before the real dancing starts with the corps de ballet snowflake scene and the Act II catalogue of Balanchine Divertissements.

There were flashes of adjustments last year under Angel Corella’s directorship and this year there is even more of a recharged staging, that doesn’t rely solely on the excellence of key dancers. The party scene, for instance, are bursting with character movement and the kids are also not just scrambling, but playing characters with movement intent. The scene focus is clean and forward moving – nothing gets stalled in ritualized pageantry.

Capturing your attention immediately is a brattier Fritz, always taunting his Marie sister as the guests arrive. Herr Drosselmeir appears with his magical boxes and the toys come to life.  The Nutcracker gets cracked by Fritz, and Marie has met the young man who becomes her prince, battling the Mouse King.

Rachel Stern is a most captivating Marie, both as a dancer and actor, as is Aiden Duffy, as the attendant Nephew and the Nutcracker battling the mouse king. But the scene stealer is eight- year- old Rowan Duffy who knows how to hit his dance mark and get big laughs.

In the novelty danses– Harlequin & Columbine dolls, Misa Kasamatsu and Marria Cosentino are the robotic dolls en pointe and Harrison Monaco as the steely eyed tin Soldier, nailing flat-footed entrechats. Ian Hussey brings storybook mystique to Herr Drosselmeir.

The Act I finale brings Marie to her fantasy snowy forest, where the real dancing begins, with the Snowflakes corps de ballet women commanding in their precision unison and swirl of chasses, jetes, pirouettes, pure as the Balanchine driven snow. They are serenaded by the clarion voices of The Boys Choir of Philadelphia, in their red blazers, from the first box of the opera house.

Act II commences in The Land of the Sweets with no story line to get in the way of Balanchine’s parade of character dance and imperial ballet classicism.

The Pennsylvania Ballet roster will dance every performance during the three week run, with corps members, soloists and principals rotating feature or lead roles.

In the Hot Chocolate Spanish dance, five couples toss off those sauté de Basque phrases and flashy abrazos led by Craig Wasserman and Alexandra Hughes. Lillian Di Piazza smolders in the Arabian Dance, slinking in her beaded harem togs and femme fatale gaze, whether she circles in arabesque or drops to a split, she owns the stage as Coffee. Jermel Johnson dazzles the crowd with huge splits in Tea and Andrew Daly is the jauntiest of jumpers in the hoop dance, leading the minty Candy Cane line dance.

In the ensemble feature roles, Holly Lynn Fusco led The Marzipan Shepardesses, with tons of charm, even with some wayward group phrasing. Later, the waltz of the Flowers ensemble was dripping with both charm and dizzyingly sharp patterns, led with dynamic flair by Dewdrop Lauren Fadeley executing supple adagio turns and air slicing jetes. Edward Barnes gets to camp it up in uber-drag as Mother Ginger with the Polichinelles aka the junior corps from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, in smart balletic line.

In the central pas de deux, new PB stars Mayara Pineiro and Arian Molina Soca electrified, even with a wayward step or two. Pineiro’s technical artistry- movement clarity and lyrical line- from her lightening speed pirouette runs to her diamond penche arabesque. Soca has rarified balloné and at ease, princely precision as he lifts Pinero over his head so high that you can see his smile, as he floats her down to pointe.

The other star of Nutcracker is the Tchaikovsky score and the musicians of Pennsylvania Ballet’s orchestra. Beatrice Jona Affron sustains dynamic tempos, with orchestral thrust and with chamber music translucence in the quieter passages- outstanding among them that most transporting violin solo played by Luigi Mazzocchi after the party.

Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 11- 31 at The Academy of Music, Broad & Locust St. Philadelphia.

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