The current production of L.A. Ballet’s Nutcracker puts a personalized stamp on America’s most often seen classical production. The ballet is location friendly, set in Los Angeles in 1912. Each time I see the curtain rise on the set for Act II, I am somehow reminded of an Andalusian style courtyard looking out over the Pacific Palisades. The company, which is chamber sized, makes due with a smallish cast. Artistic Directors, Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen, have on hand an appealing and well trained ensemble of dancers recruited from their dance school who fill the subsidiary roles. The ballet, which was first choreographed for the company by Colleen Neary and Thordal Christensen in 2006, has been a mainstay of the L.A. Ballet repertory since it debuted.
Little has changed with this production since it was first produced. One of its strong points is the brilliant costuming by Mikael Melbye. First to last, this is a beautifully dressed show. What seems less effective are some of the elements of staging and storytelling that keep the story shallow of sentiment, especially in Act I, where the changing demands of a festive social narrative, an imaginary battle and the emergence of the romantic and fantastical heart of the ballet are not always clearly revealed. As an example, take the quickstep (Petit Galop) music from Act I, which is clearly a social dance but here is transformed into background music for handing out presents. Then there is the grandeur of the music following the death of the Rat King which never blooms into something momentous on stage. In many productions, this music is transformed into an emotional moment for the eventual soloists, a reunion of the Princely Nutcracker and Clara, or the prelude to the appearance of a Snow Queen. At the very least it is a portal to a romantic vision. Here it is glossed over until we are rescued and lifted by Snow.
The Battle scenario however is entirely right. The oversized rats are magnificent. When they circle Clara’s bed, hovering in the beaming spotlight, you can believe her fear. The chaos is managed effectively; the interaction between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, danced by Christopher Revels, is suitably combative. Nicolas de la Vega as the suave Drosselmeyer is excellent. His exuberant characterization is lightened by some charming physical comedy. He is a partying, young Uncle for the nascent Hollywood movie crowd. As the Cossack Doll, Zheng Hua Li also adds a full measure of clean, stylish dancing. Waltz of the Snowflakes itself is a delight of inventive, shifting patterns and sharp ensemble dancing but it also felt wanting for sheer numbers.
Act II plays more smoothly. But displacing the Tarantella and Sugar Plum variations of the Grand Pas de Deux to the opening moments of the act, instead of leaving them at the conclusion where, artistically speaking they belong, seemed a misstep. Many versions of the ballet play fast and loose with the original choreography and music. But the Grand Pas de Deux is probably one domain better left whole. Also deleted in this production was the diversion for the Merlitons. While the underpowered Spanish variation seemed bland, the high flying Trepak, danced by three men, was imbued with all the right traditional spirit. The taped music was well balanced and avoided boosted volume levels. The performance was not credited on the program.
Allynne Noelle and Kenta Shimizu were excellent as the soloists. Shimizu’s Tarantella was airy and faultless. Ms. Noelle especially makes an enlivened connection with her audience and stays connected even during the virtuoso moments. She pursues the role with an abandon that you feel through her last plunge as she lays back into the arms of her Prince. Also lighting up Act II was Julia Cinquemani in the Arabian diversion. Cinquemani continues to develop her performances in this role with great dancing and a growing sense for acting detail. Odalisque, seraglio girl, call her what you will, her steely cool matched that of her consort, Alexander Castillo, who made her look good throughout with his sure partnering.
(America’s first “Nutcracker” was produced at San Francisco Ballet in 1944 by the American dancer and choreographer, William Christensen. He relied on information from George Balanchine about original Russian performances of the ballet as his models. The San Francisco Ballet version, now defunct, featured the famed growing Christmas tree which Balanchine also used in his 1954 version. That much loved staging endures at New York City Ballet, more or less unchanged, and is now easily the longest surviving original version of the “Nutcracker” anywhere in the country. The ballet was first produced for the Mariinsky Theatre in Russia in 1892.)