Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A crackling Nutcracker

A bevy of snowflakes do their thing in The Nutcracker.

If you've been waiting for a special reason to see - or return to - Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker, then this may be your year to take the plunge. For this old chestnut is crackling this year as it never has before. Indeed, the annual extravaganza had begun to seem a bit gimmicky and bloated of late; every season marked the introduction of some new special effect or cute bit of business, to the point at which the ballet seemed to be bulging at the seams, and you could almost count on some technical snafu or other (I remember on last year's opening night, the Christmas tree only "grew" to half its full height).

But in this year's model, the spectacle that had accumulated over recent years finally cohered - all the special effects came off, the constant stage traffic never got snarled, and the acting reached the same high level the dancing had long since attained. In short, The Nutcracker actually flowed as a story ballet, as it should.

Much of the credit for this happy development should, of course, go to Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen, who has been tooling and retooling the piece under pressure, as it's wandered from the Wang to the Colonial and then to the Opera House. But I think at least a few laurels should be thrown at the feet of dancer Boyko Dossev, who made the best Drosselmeier I've ever seen. The role includes little challenging dancing - in the first act, that went to the virtuosic John Lam and Misa Kuranaga, as the mechanical, yet utterly flexible, Harlequin and Columbine - but it's still the essentially the acting fulcrum of the piece, and Dossev effortlessly pulled together the opening Christmas party (which with its simple dances for kids can get a little wearying for grown-ups) with a smart, slightly fey, but also faintly menacing sense of masculine whimsy. In short, Dossev made Drosselmeier spooky and fun - and as a result, so was the whole show.

Actually, the production did wobble slightly during the battle between the Nutcracker/Cavalier and the Mouse King (above) - which of its many set-pieces probably includes the most gags per minute, all of them good, but perhaps taken together almost too much of a good thing. Once Clara (a charming, light-on-her-feet Elizabeth Wisdom) and her Cavalier were making nice with the Snow King and Queen (Roman Rykine and Larissa Ponomarenko), however, the stage business settled down, and the Ballet's leading dancers - a very strong field these days - took over, and all was once again well.

As usual, Ponomarenko and Rykine were pretty much peerless - this team brings the art of partnering to the highest level of any couple in the Ballet, and their pas de deux was, as it should be, a dazzling display of noble romantic glamour. The various divertissements in the Land of Sweets remained at close to the same ravishing level; Sabi Varga and (especially) Lia Cirio brought a dark hauteur to the Arabian pas de deux ("Coffee"), while Misa Kuranaga (again) and Altankhuya Dugaraa charmed in the Chinese ("Tea"), and Jared Redick wowed the crowd with his stratospheric leaps in the rousing Russian dance. Likewise Melissa Hough impressed with her sunny confidence as the Dewdrop Fairy, and Lorna Feijóo brought her usual disciplined sex appeal to her exquisite turn as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Alas, her Cavalier for the evening, the talented Yury Yanowsky (replacing Nelson Madrigal, and not listed in the role for that weekend) seemed to be having an off night; he looked tired, and seemed unsteady on one or two of his solo landings - still, he partnered Feijóo well (if somewhat intently - you could almost see him counting pirouettes). And his handful of missteps did little to dull what proved to be a truly dazzling evening.

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