"The Nutcracker" has become a treasured entertainment tradition of the Christmas season, and again this year a most enchanting version can be found in Annapolis at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
At the Ballet Theatre of Maryland's opening performance, artistic director Dianna Cuatto briefly traced the history of this holiday favorite. Composed by Peter Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Marius Petipa, "The Nutcracker" originally received a cool reception at its Russian premiere in December 1892. Later when choreographed in 1944 by William Christensen, "The Nutcracker" enchanted San Francisco ballet audiences.
Long after Christensen's "The Nutcracker" had become a holiday favorite, he was dancer Cuatto's mentor. Their affiliation may shed light on Cuatto's unique ability to invest her every choreographed "Nutcracker" with fresh magic.
Most important to this "Nutcracker" is the high skill level of these dancers. Again this year, dancers Brian Walker and Meagan Helman do double- and triple-duty backstage. Walker is technical director and serves with Helman as production/tech designer; Helman also serves as scenic artist while continuing her duties as ballet mistress. Dancer Alyssa Johnson serves as wardrobe mistress, and Calder Taylor is prop master. Together these dancers help bring Cuatto's vision of scenery color-coordinated with costumes to lovely moving life.
Based on "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," written by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816, Tchaikovsky's 1892 score tells the story of 12-year-old Clara, who receives a nutcracker from her godfather Herr Drosselmeier for her Christmas birthday. Her brother Fritz mischievously breaks Clara's nutcracker, which Drosselmeier repairs. After the guests leave the party, Clara falls asleep in the living room clutching her nutcracker.
In the first scene of Ballet Theatre of Maryland's production, we immediately see, through a scrim, a dreamlike vision of the family living room where children and adults await guests. In the foreground Herr Drosselmeier and his nephew Christopher are shopping for Christmas gifts for Clara and Fritz.
Soon the living room is filled with elegantly costumed partygoers, chatting and dancing as Drosselmeier and Christopher arrive with gifts. Drosselmeier brings a life-size mechanical doll and soldier, along with a nutcracker that delights Clara. After Clara's teasing brother Fritz drops the nutcracker and stabs it with his toy sword, Clara is consoled by Christopher while Drosselmeier repairs the nutcracker as the Christmas party ends.
Soon Clara will find herself in a mysterious place where mice have grown to life-size humans led by a giant Mouse King. The Nutcracker will defeat the Mouse King in battle and become a handsome prince, and Clara a princess. Together they will visit the magical kingdoms of snow, sweets and dreams to complete the ballet story.
At the opening night performance, Erica Wong danced the role of Clara with her distinctive blend of joyous grace, superb technique and energetic athleticism that seemed more spectacular than in her performance last year when I described Wong as the best Clara I'd seen.
Wong's Clara was again superbly partnered by Joshua Burnham, who surpassed the high standard he set as the Nephew/Nutcracker Prince last year. His vigorous barrel turns, intense speed, breath-taking elevations and poetic partnering skills were beyond those that amazed me last year.
Together, Wong and Burnham create a gorgeous grand pas de deux of superb dancing that approaches perfection in romantic expression.
In this "Nutcracker" production, Cuatto continues her practice of multiple-casting most major roles. Wong alternates as Clara with Kathryn Carlson and Nicole Kelsch. Burnham and Walker are cast as Nephew/Nutcracker Prince.
As Herr Drosselmeier, Albert Kessler, now in his eighth year in the role, delivers his most nuanced performance to date.
Another major role is the Dew Drop Fairy, danced with airy lightness by Helman on opening night. The role of Snow Queen was danced by Carlson, who delivered her usual sparkling performance. On opening night the Snow King was expertly performed by Walker.
In the colorful ethnic dance exhibitions that take place in the second act, all soloists and associates deserve kudos.
Again this year, many talented dancing children add charm to their every scene. In fact, every performer contributes to the distinctive magic that makes Ballet Theatre of Maryland's "Nutcracker" a not-to-be-missed event.
Performances of "The Nutcracker" are scheduled at 7 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sunday with free Sugar Plum Parties at noon and 3:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: 410-280-5640. Information: 410-224-5644 or balletmaryland.org.