Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The return - and last bow - of a classic

Whitney Jensen sails through the Waltz of the Flowers.  Photos: Gene Schiavone.

I'm not sure I have anything left to say about The Nutcracker. I'm not sure anybody does. But as I settled into my seat to catch the first night of Boston Ballet's annual edition, I looked forward to its familiar pleasures just as I always do.   Does the Ballet do this holiday classic up right?  Yes, most definitely, and I'm not alone in that opinion - judging from online polls, it's the most popular Nutcracker in the country.  Which really should come as no surprise, given artistic director Mikko Nissinen has taken great care to pack as much entertainment value as he can into his company's big moneymaker - indeed, at times it feels almost overstuffed, a kind of holiday behemoth with something for everyone.

You could argue, I suppose, that some versions are cleaner and more coherent - often because they've recruited an adult Clara, which allows for more narrative dancing in the second half.  And indeed, the Boston Ballet edition is not so much an artistic statement as an extravaganza; it lurches occasionally in its narrative, and swings from fantasy to romance to comedy at the drop of a snowflake.  But who cares?  The kids always laugh at the mechanical mouse, and Dad always wakes up when the sylph of the "Arabian" dance begins her barely-PG contortions, while Mom just finds everything adorable; and I'm not going to argue with any of them.

Alas, a few of this elaborate production's tricks didn't quite come off on opening night; a magic handkerchief went rogue, for instance, briefly entangling Sabi Varga's spooky, sexy Drosselmeier.  So maybe it's a good thing the sets and costumes are being "retired," bright and bold as they are - in case you haven't heard, this year is your last chance to see them.  And you should, of course, because they're charming in a deliciously high, fantastical key - but something tells me next year's edition will be charming, too (never fear, my inside sources assure me the production will remain traditional - you can see an initial sketch of the possibilities at  So you should probably see the show this year and next, just like I do.

Indeed, watching the production play out over time has turned out to be the best way for me to assess the growth of the Ballet's general technical ability. By now, however, the bench of talent has grown so deep and so wide that it may have outgrown this particular yardstick.  To be honest, the second act is now one long stretch of technical prowess - every one of Tchaikovsky's divertissements seems to have its own expert interpreter.  Indeed, as the dancers parade into the Kingdom of Sweets at the top of the act, you could be forgiven for feeling slightly stunned.   We've already met mainstays James Whiteside, Lia Cirio, and Misa Kuranaga - but then Rie Ichikawa, Kathleen Breen Combes, Lasha Khozashvili, Adiarys Almeida, Joseph Gatti, Jeffrey Cirio, and Whitney Jensen file through, along with many others - the great dancers just keep coming and coming, until they fill the stage.

Lia Cirio (the Sugar Plum Fairy) guides Rachel Harrison (Clara) through the Kingdom of Sweets.

There were incremental steps forward evident for some younger members of the company, too.  The up-and-coming Paolo Arrais, for instance, who dazzled us as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, unexpectedly had to step in for John Lam as the Snow King - and dazzled us all over again.  And somehow Isaac Akiba's leaps during his "Russian" dance had a lyricism this time around they've lacked before; Akiba has always been a great athlete, but now I could feel real emotion moving beneath his sunny ability; he's becoming a great dancer, too.  Lawrence Rines likewise made a solid impression as a loose-limbed Harlequin, against Dalay Parrondo's reliably precise Columbine.  And the very youngest members of the cast - the children - all performed with dedication and charm, while Rachel Harrison (above, with Lia Cirio) made a sweetly poised Clara.

Down in the pit, conductor Jonathan McPhee gave what may be the longest stretch of memorable melody in existence his usual vigorous shape, although as in Romeo and Juliet, I'm afraid there was roughness in the horns here and there.  Still, principal trumpet Bruce Hall came through with a gleamingly confident solo in the "Spanish" dance that seemed to almost sum up the virtues of this much-loved version - dazzling show-biz brio, a solid sense of fun, and dancing chops to die for.

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