Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Madison Ballet's Nutcracker: Gorgeous, with a few Glitches

By Susan Kepecs

The sheer range of choreographic ingenuity exposed in New York Times dance critic Alistair Macaulay’s cross-country Nutcracker Chronicles – have you been following this? – is staggering.  His dispatches, from traditional productions – the Joffrey’s Nut, Moscow Ballet’s, Balanchine’s, by New York City Ballet – and the offbeat ones – hip hop Nuts, R-rated Nuts, Nuts set in the historical contexts of the cities in which they’re staged, Mark Morris’ famous ‘70s retro Hard Nut, the 15th Annual Black Nutcracker at Harlem’s Apollo Theater – paint a precise portrait of American diversity through the lens of a beloved Christmas classic.  Macaulay’s blog posts (http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/?s=nutcracker+chronicles) reveal the gorgeous, the glitches, what’s memorable, and what’s not, in every single one of these sundry productions.
Macaulay omits Madison, but I caught the 7:30 PM performance of Madison Ballet’s annual Nutcracker in Overture Hall on Sat., Dec. 18 (the casting shifts slightly from one show to the next and there are two matinees to go, on Christmas Eve at 1 PM and Dec. 26, at 2).  The production, which marks the fourth season since the company went professional, was slightly uneven, like Nuts nationwide.
Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker, choreographed in the Balanchine tradition by artistic director W. Earle Smith, falls squarely in the traditional camp.  This is certainly the right approach for this company, in this city, in these times.  But my biggest beef – and I’ve said this before – is the humdrum party scene in Act I, in which little Clara receives a nutcracker doll as a holiday gift.  Unless your own little dance student is shining onstage there’s no real excitement, and the canned music the company’s used since the crash of ’08 exaggerates the problem.  Since we can’t hang our attention spans on a live interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score, only Gretchen Bourg’s hammy pantomime as the maid, plus the local celebs disguised as party parents – Mad City Police Department public information officer and former WISC-TV reporter Joel DeSpain and UW’s Wisconsin Union Director Mark Guthier this year – provided relief. 
Well, that and the dancing dolls.  Zachary Guthier, a Madison Ballet apprentice, merits mention for his crisp, clean Soldier Doll performance.  But this short burst of bona fide ballet is nowhere near enough to carry the whole scene, which is sorely in need of a new slant.
Guthier (Zachary, that is) swapped costumes to come right back out as the Rat King in Clara’s post-party midnight nightmare, with its zany battle between the rats and the toy soldiers.  The rats were terrific this year, kicking and leaping in their grizzly rat suits.  
At the end of this silly-spooky dream little Clara grows up and the nutcracker doll comes to life; the two celebrate their budding romance in the Snow pas de deux that follows.  This year Smith cast Molly Luksik and Bryan Cunningham in the protagonist roles – a challenge for Luksik, a fiery redhead who stole last year's show with her daredevil Russian dance.  Since her natural style is swift and brash I was amazed to see her pull out dreamy nuances in the Snow pas, floating into her lifts, swooping backwards into Cunningham’s arms and flipping birdlike into plush penchée arabesques, the lines of her extended limbs continued upward in the raised arc of Cunningham’s free arm.
Cunningham’s partnering was indeed pitch perfect, and he delivered a relaxed, fluid performance in his short variation.  But the pair slipped slightly in the second act.  The Sugarplum pas de deux, studded with fish dives and risky lifts, was confident, and Luksik, flaunting fancy footwork in the coda, sparkled.  But the creampuffy quality she brought to the Snow pas gave way, and Cunningham’s clean lines faded at his less than pointed feet during his nonetheless admirably airborne coupe jete menege.
The divertissements deserve a salute.  Katy Fredrick, subtly flicking her feet, brought a smidge of escuela bolera, suspiciously missing in previous years, to the Spanish dance.  Avichai Scher’s bravura chops brought cheers for his Russian dance, reprised from 2008.  Laura Rutledge, by herself, finessed the substantial Merlitons piece, which is usually staged for two or three.
In the performance I saw Madelyn Boyce had the demanding Dewdrop role in the Waltz of the Flowers.  Boyce is a lovely dancer, notable for her faultless musical phrasing and expressive neoclassical style, but she played the part too close to the chest – the Dewdrop requires the kind of give-it-all-up-for-the-audience glitter hometown favorite Genevieve Custer-Weeks used to bring to the part.
Small flaws and the party scene aside, though, I’ll admit it – this was Madison Ballet’s best Nutcracker yet.  The proof’s in how the audience sees it.  I walked outside after the show with an old friend whose daughter was in the youth company corps de ballet for the first Nut Smith directed when he took over in 1999.  At that time the production was simply a community affair, relying entirely on area ballet students except for the pair of big-name guest principals flown in for the Sugarplum pas.  “Earle came to Madison with a vision,” my friend said, meaning his plan to create a professional company equal to those of other mid-size cities, “and he’s realizing it.”

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