Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Reviewing The Nutcracker, Boston Ballet's annual seasonal spectacle, has become an easy gig.  Since the kinks were worked out of its transfer to the Opera House, the show has become an ever-smoother entertainment machine; by now, almost every nook and cranny has been packed with amusing effects.  And while every season the Ballet tinkers a bit with some sequence or other (this year, the opening battle with the Mouse King seemed to have been streamlined), in essence, The Nutcracker doesn't change in its essential nature - or in its steps.

Thus it has become a kind of barometer of the company's technical growth - and judging from last weekend's opening, Boston Ballet has come very far indeed in a very short time.  I think every lead role was exquisitely danced, and while the choreography, by Mikko Nissinen, is neither deep nor daring, it's often quite sophisticated, and there's a mysterious fascination in watching these familiar steps re-enacted with the supreme precision in evidence here.  Indeed, the roll call of superb performances in this version would be a long one.  James Whiteside made a fluidly gallant Cavalier, and Misa Kuranaga was just perfection as the Sugar Plum Fairy.  Meanwhile John Lam was unbelievably flexible (as ever) as the Harlequin, and Dalay Parrondo impressed with a weirdly spirited Columbine.  Pavel Gurevitch brought a romantic elegance to the long leaps (and pillowy landings) of the Snow King, and Isaac Akiba was his usual irrepressible self in the Russian dance, while Kathleen Breen Combes (above) simply stopped the show as the sinuous odalisque of the Arabian dance (I think Combes is by now firmly ensconced as the troupe's new reigning diva).

There were still more pleasures to be had in a show almost dripping with them; the serenely poised Whitney Jensen made a luminous Dew Drop Fairy, for instance, and Paulo Arrais charmed in the Chinese dance.  The Clara of opening night, Fiona Wada-Gill, was both lovely and quite accomplished technically, and as Fritz, the pint-sized Max Pounanov proved an amusingly - and accurately - pouty little brother.  If there were a few bumps here and there, I'm afraid they mostly came from the corps.  The snowflakes seemed to skitter a bit at the end of the first act, and when Jensen wasn't around, the Waltz of the Flowers became a bit of a free-for-all.  And I missed the witty theatricality of Boyko Dossev as Drosselmeier (indeed, I miss Dossev in general - he decamped for Washington Ballet), but I slowly warmed to Sabi Varga's simpler, but more sexually charged, characterization.  Meanwhile, down in the pit, the orchestra played with spirit, and maestro Jonathan McPhee always kept his foot firmly on the gas (indeed, perhaps too much so here and there - in the Chinese dance, the bassoons got a little ahead of the piccolos).

It's true that at times, as I consider the wild success of the Ballet's Nutcracker (it's widely known as the best-loved version in America), I long for something a little less glossy, a little less candified. I wish we could let the Nutcracker be a little spookier, a little more Russian.  But I can't expect the Ballet to tinker with success - certainly not a success like this one.  And I confess there are moments in The Nutcracker that still, after all these years, give me a child-like thrill - I always fall for that moment when the giant Christmas tree begins to grow, its candles glittering, or when the Land of Sweets first appears, its cloud spilling out from the stage and down into the orchestra.  I'm happy to see it every year, particularly when, year after year, the dancing just keeps getting better and better.

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