Sunday, December 16, 2012

Dance Review: Madison Ballet's Nutcracker, 2012

by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker is what it is – a traditional choreographic take on the ballet that’s become an American holiday staple and the cash cow for every company in the country – and, for lots of little kids, a first chance to perform onstage.  There are some very creative Nuts out there, and as the city gets more sophisticated about ballet – a trend that’s been a long time coming – I hope Madison Ballet’s version gets quirkier.  It’s worth mentioning that next Saturday night for the first time the company does its Nutty Nut, a comic, PG-rated one-shot that could be a first step toward shaking up the serious production in the future. 
For my annual dose of not-nutty Nutcracker, along with bunches of noisy small children I attended the opening matinee on Saturday, Dec. 15.  After surviving four years of canned music occasioned by the Crash of ’08, the addition of Maestro John DeMain and a stripped-down version of the Madison Symphony was an awakening.  Just hearing the orchestra warming up in the pit prior to the performance lent urban authenticity to the program, and during the ballet DeMain slanted Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous score toward the action onstage, bringing out some Nut nuances we haven’t seen for a while. 
Six seasons ago Madison Ballet went professional, but it was only last year – and with Nutcracker, no less (there are other, much more interesting works in the company’s repertory) – that it finally hit its stride. This year’s production, while not another leap forward, was almost as good.  I found nothing more than a few small nits to pick.  
The Snow and Flowers corps, composed of company members and upper-division students, were ocasionally out of synch – a recurring problem.
Marguerite Luksik, in her third year as the female lead, was as lovely as always.  A fast, precise turner, she excels at spinning toward her partner (the very efficient Brian Roethlisberger), then plunging into death-defying dips; she floats, feather-light, into overhead lifts; the phrasing in her variations is luxuriously elongated.  But I suspected a slight tiredness – there were moments in the Sugarplum pas her when stage smile felt forced. 
For the third year in a row, Smith set the long Merlitons divertissement, usually staged for two or three, as a solo.  But without a dancer of Luksik’s caliber to carry the role, that’s a mistake.  At the Saturday matinee Brittany Benington, in her second Madison Ballet Nutcracker, did the honors with technical accuracy. But the dance looked a bit stiff, as if in need of more breath.
These were the gems: company apprentice McKenna Collins sparkled as the female doll in the party scene, salting her flirty little waltz with flawless turns. 
 Jessica Mackinson is new to Madison Ballet this season; in practice clothes she looks more like a hard worker than a sparkling ballerina, so her vivacious, coquettish performance in the Spanish divertissement was a revelation. 
Phillip Ollenburg, a big, confident mover, brought his usual brio to the Russian solo, charging the atmosphere with his flashy cabrioles, triple pirouettes, ample coupe jeté turns and huge second position, toe-touching split jumps.
Yu Suzuki and Jacob Ashley (formerly known as Jacob Brooks) turned in a superb Arabian pas, the savoriest I’ve seen yet from Madison Ballet.  Ashley stretched Yu into a split, then wrapped her around his waist. She twined sinuously around his body, like a snake, then unfolded into a double attitude, seated on his hip. She teased; she slinked across the stage, Ashley in pursuit.  He caught her triumphantly, lifting her high overhead and netting a loud “Bravo!” from the audience.
I had a lump in my throat throughout Waltz of the Flowers, watching Genevieve Custer-Weeks, who’s retiring from the stage and who I’ve known for many years, celebrate her final performance as the Dewdrop.  It was a pleasure to see her, regal as always, boureeing in circles sprinkling dew on the appreciative blooms and luxuriating in those long-legged, high-flying grand jetés for which we’ll always remember her.  
Custer-Weeks as Dewdrop, 2012                                © SKepecs

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