Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Madison Ballet's Best Nutcracker Yet

Dance Review: Madison Ballet’s The Nutcracker, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2 pm, Overture Hall
by Susan Kepecs

Nutcrackers are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike.  Madison Ballet’s very traditional version has trended up over the years, but two details made the ballet I saw Sunday afternoon stand out.  The lavish sets and costumes, purchased by artistic director W. Earle Smith in 2004 for Overture’s opening season, seemed far too extravagant then.  But the company’s finally grown into them, and now they supply spectacular production values.  The sets for New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker, telecast on PBS last week, looked pale in comparison.  And while Madison Ballet doesn’t have starpower principals like Megan Fairchild and Ashley Bouder, it does have Marguerite Luksik, in the principal role that blends Snow Queen and Sugarplum Fairy into the sole character of Clara, grown up.
This is Luksik’s second year in the demanding part.  In 2010 her Snow was luscious, but the quality of her performance slipped slightly in the second act.  This year was different – Luksik, gracefully partnered by Brian Roethlisberger, whose last appearance with Madison Ballet was in Nutcracker 2003, turned in a pitch-perfect, superbly confident performance from start to finish.  She floated into her lifts, her footwork sparkled, her turns were crisp, her lines elegant.  Best of all she often elongated her phrases, creating a very neoclassical kind of kinesthethc tension by dancing a luxuriant split-second behind the music.
        I expected Luksik's brilliance after her impressive performance as Puck in Midsummer Night's Dream last spring, but the solidity of the rest of the show surprised me.  The Act I party scene – in any Nutcracker, not just Madison Ballet’s – always makes me wish Tchiakovsky’s magnificent score were attached to a better ballet.  The Stahlbaum’s 2011 holiday gala on the Overture Hall stage was no exception, but the company did a notably better job with it than usual.  In the young Clara role Maja Peterson, a Level 3B student at the School of Madison Ballet, displayed balletic chops well beyond those of her predecessors.  For Madison actor Sam White, in his third year as the slightly creepy magician Drosselmeyer, the art of presenting in the ballet idiom finally clicked; that’s key, since without a strong Drosselmeyer the story falls apart.  And Jacob Brooks blessed the soldier doll dance with impressive stage presence plus athletic triple pirouettes, cabrioles and tours en l’air. 
Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker has finally blossomed, but the rats have been tops since the start.  The way they leap, kick and scratch in their grizzly rat suits is just plain from-the-heart funny, year after year.  No matter how much I may think I never want to see another Nutcracker, the rats, and Smith’s lush, slightly idiosyncratic neoclassical choreography for the Snow corps, always captivate me.  This year’s Snow corps, composed of advanced ballet students and professional company members, looked, for the most part, nicely unified.  But Rachelle Butler and Genevieve Custer-Weeks, who’ve been with Madison Ballet since the very beginning, stood out for their sumptious phrasing -- a distinction that was repeated in the Flowers corps in Act II.
The divertissements hit a few small snags.  This is the second year Smith’s done the Merliton dance, usually staged for two or three, as a solo.  Jennifer Holoubek, in her first appearance with the company, handled the piece well technically, but the sparkle she needed to meet the real challenge of this substantial dance was missing.  In spots I craved more brio from Brooks, who looked slightly uncomfortable when partnering Katy Frederick in the Spanish dance, which fit her like a glove, and when taking his bows.
Nevertheless, Brooks’ Russian variation was bold.  He bounded repeatedly into second position split jumps and whipped off a tricky string of cabrioles and tours en l’air that finished in front attitude, to the audience’s delight.  The Arabian pas was seamlessly sensual; tall, limber Shannon Quirk snaked seductively around partner Phillip Ollenburg.  Advanced School of Madison Ballet students Jon Stewart, Dierdre Turner and Marcella Van Kan turned in a terrific Thai dance.  And Megan Horton revisited the Dewdrop role in the Waltz of the Flowers, which she performed in 2009.  Horton is wispy, wide-eyed and graceful.  Her turns weren’t always perfect, but the way she sailed her grand pas de chats and grand jetés, festooning them with fabulously articulate arms, made her a joy to watch.

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