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Photographs by Barry Wisdom
Whether you’re continuing a lifelong Christmastime tradition or you’re a new “Black Swan” fan who’s come late to the ballet-appreciation party, there is something for everyone in Sacramento Ballet’s alternatingly funny and passionate, but always mesmerizing and magical “The Nutcracker,” which opened Friday evening at the Sacramento Community Center Theater.
Blessed with live accompaniment of Tchaikovsky’s familiar score by the spectacular Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, there is much that can be considered divine about this delicious holiday chestnut.
In addition to philharmonic director Henrik Jul Hansen’s sure baton, reasons to leap for joy include Sacramento Ballet Artistic Director Ron Cunningham’s diverse choreography, which serves not only a wide range of audience tastes, but a large cast that includes both veteran dancers from around the world and young apprentices, trainees and even younger children making their onstage debuts.
Cunningham and Carinne Binda are credited with the entertaining staging of this 23rd annual edition of Cunningham’s take on the 118-year-old Russian two-act ballet based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”
While the original production was far from a success, perhaps if the Sacramento Ballet’s artistic and technical team (including scenic designer Alain Vaes, costume desinger Theresa Kimbrough and lighting designer Steve Odehnal) were at the helm, it wouldn’t have taken almost a half-century for it to achieve chestnut status on the Christmas arts-and-culture landscape.
“Oohs” and “ahhs” were heard throughout Friday evening’s opening – and not just from the many children in the audience dressed in their red, green and gold-velvet holiday finery.
“Is that a hologram?” whispered a neighbor in the orchestra section, who was delighted with the “magic” achieved through the use of a scrim, which was effectively used throughout the production.
But, for as many delights as the tech staff provides, the real magic in this mounting, which is not achieved through computer consoles and special effects, but from old-fashioned blood, sweat and tears generated during hours of repetitious training and rehearsal on the part of the accomplished cast.
Featuring Oliver-Paul Adams, Stefan Calka, Ava Chatterson, Roberto Cisneros, Alexandra Cunningham, Roy Gan, Chloe Horne, Isha Lloyd, Brik Middlekauff, Sunchai Muy, Christopher B. Nachtrab, Amanda Peet, Richard Porter, Richard Smith, Rex Wheeler, John Whisler, Lynlee Towne, Notaln T’Sani, Annali Rose Clevenger, R. Colby Damon and Cunningham, the cast dance a variety of roles.
For the uninitiated, the story of “The Nutcracker” is charming fantasy set in 19th century Germany, in which the Stahlbaum family’s holiday party is enlivened by the arrival of Dr. Drosselmeyer (played Friday by Cunningham), a toymaker who brings a variety of life-sized, wind-up toys with him, as well as gifts for the family’s children, Clara (the absolutely darling and very poised Claire Westerman) and Fritz (Elijah Vasquez).
Jealous and mean, Fritz breaks his sister’s gift – a nutcracker – which leaves her inconsolable until the eccentric Herr Drosselmeyer repairs the toy.
But late in the night, after the guests are gone and all is quiet, Clara retrieves her toy and falls asleep with it in her arms.
Then the fun begins: with Clara “shrinking” to toy-size (with the help of some snazzy scenic effects that give the illusion that her family’s Christmas tree is “growing”), before beginning her fantastic journey that starts with being menaced by the Mouse King, who’s eventually bested by the Nutcracker and his army of toy soldiers.
More magic ensues when the Nutcracker transforms into a handsome prince (Roberto Cisneros), who takes Clara on a journey to the Snowflake Forest, where he introduces her to the Snow Queen and Snow King (Alexandra Cunningham and Christopher Nachtrab).
Cunningham and Nachtrab’s pas de deux is the first of several showcased in the ballet, but perhaps the most beautiful thanks to the softly falling blizzard of shimmering snowflakes that may well cause a myriad of performance issues for the dancers, but which provide a beautiful setting for those safely seated in the audience.
Act Two opens in the Kingdom of Sweets, where the Nutcracker Prince has taken Clara to meet the Sugar Plum Fairy (Amanda Peet) and her “cavalier” (Stefan Calka) via a ride in a beautiful balloon (another “ooh”-evoking moment).
After relating the story of their battle with the Mouse King, Clara and the Nutcracker Prince are treated to a celebration of dances from around the world, including Spain, Arabia, China and Russia, as well as a series of sweet novelty numbers.
Always an audience favorite, this series of dances is great fun for the kids and laymen in the audience who can appreciate the fun and athleticism even if they’re unschooled in the technical aspects. Big applause-getters were Colby Damon, who leaps up a storm as the Russian principle, and Tim Stewart as Mother Ginger, whose gigantic hoop skirt conceals a cadre of young dancers.
Concluding a very satisfying second act is the “Waltz of the Flowers” (featuring Chloe Horne) and Peet and Calka in the “Grand Pas de Deux.”
Cunningham and Binda’s “The Nutcracker” is almost like a variety show – with stuff for the kids and teens, as well as the longtime ballet-goer – all wrapped up in Christmas wrapping that makes it the perfect holiday treat.
WHAT: Sacramento Ballet presents “Ron Cunningham’s The Nutcracker”
WHEN: Dec. 10-23, 2010
WHERE: Sacramento Community Center Theater, 1400 J St.
WHO: Music by Peter Iliych Tchaikovsky; choreography by Ron Cunningham (after Marius Petipa); staged by Carinne Binda and Ron Cunningham; accompanied by the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Henrik Jul Hansen
HOW MUCH: $15-$68
FOR INFO: (916) 552-5800 ext. 2 (ballet box office) or (916) 808-5181 (Community Center Theater box office); www.sacballet.org