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Pennsylvania Ballet's 2014 'Nutcracker' gets tinselly tweaks

by Lewis J Whittington
December 19, 2014
Academy of Music
240 South Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19102
215.893.1999
Pennsylvania Ballet's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" is featuring extra polished dance ornaments and production tweaks this year. Balanchine's sixty-year-old version of distilled classicism from his childhood memories of the Imperial Ballet, was for contemporary audiences by now in need of dusting off and under the new directorship of Angel Corella, there was indeed subtle improvements.

The pantomime heavy Christmas party that comprises much of the first act can drag on if not performed with precision and theatrical flair. That scene had wonderful spark throughout, especially since Lorin Mathis infused the character of Her Drosselmeier with more than lyrical pantomime, building the character from the inside out. He makes the cracking of the nuts when he gives Marie the nutcracker more than a ritualized demonstration, but rather a frenzied party moment. When he brings out the three magic boxes, the harlequin dancers and mechanical dolls dance with tin sharpen angles - Alexander Peters' dead eye, thrillingly paced Soldier Dance electrifies.

It is great to see Ella Van Oosterom as Marie, who has magical and dark Christmas dreams. She previously performed as an angel and now seems a natural to play role of Marie. She was partnered with Aidan Duffy, who was also wonderful as the Nephew/Nutcracker character. Van Oosterom possesses an instinctive ballet line and stage presence. She had wonderful interplay with Tino Karakousis, playing her mischievous brother Fritz, who was antsy and dancy. The other younger dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet's re-established school showed their spirited ensemble skills in the Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles scene in Act II of the ballet.

Act I ended with more involved dancing in the Snowflakes scene. Many a year these corps de ballerinas rescued a sagging first act, but at this performance they drifted, with some slushy unison work and step outs. Fortunately, mid-scene, as they were being serenaded by the Boys Choir of Philadelphia, they were in Balanchine's crystalline lines with wonderful esprit.

Act II opens in the Land of the Sweets, with all of those Russian divertissement, and Balanchine's barometer of classical technique for the principals and soloists.

In the Chocolates Spanish Dance, Elizabeth Meter and Edward Barnes danced with a paso doble flair and attitude. Lauren Fadeley just smoked the harem Arabian (Coffee) dance, with her lithe line and sizzling musicality. Jermel Johnson popped out of the tea box with those bounding lateral splits, his saber sharp legs slicing the air in the Chinese dance and Craig Wasserman led the Candy Cane hoop dance in spirited rhythms jumps on an acrobatic dime.

The corps women may have melted a bit in snowflakes, but they were on fire in the second act. Olivia Hartzell danced a flawless lead, carving out the counter pointes, for her Marzipan shepherdesses. Brooke Moore as Dew Drop led the finely paced Waltz of the Flowers. Moore's polished adagio turns and petite battement punctuated her expressive port de bra. Meanwhile, the flowers bloomed in Balanchine's tiered torso origami without a pedal of their ballet dresses seemingly out of place.

The ballet's pas de deux denouement is one of the most difficult in all of Balanchine's canon. It had all of the fireworks, fouette turns, grande pirouettes, fiery jetes, fleet lifts and was punctuated with static pointe poses and precarious interlocks. The freezes en pointe and particularly, the deep tilted penche arabesque can jam a performance. Ian Hussey and Evelyn Kocak as The Cavalier and The Sugar Plum danced it with authority and lyrical power, showing only momentary balance corrections.

Led by conductor Salvatore Scarpa, the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra's playing of Tchaikovsky's score was vibrant and featured fine detailing with crisp tempos that these dancers showed they were more than ready for.

Pennsylvania Ballet's "The Nutcracker" runs through Dec. 31 with rotating casts. www.paballet.org.

This review reported on the Dec. 19 performance.
Artists of Pennsylvania Balllet in George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'

Artists of Pennsylvania Balllet in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker"

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev

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