O come, all ye faithless: Behold a “Nutcracker” to banish ghosts of sugar-plum hangovers past. Ballet West’s production, which opened Wednesday at the Kennedy Center, fairly bursts with comfort and joy.
Make that joys — such as a dancing bear, a turbaned magician who turns the Arabian dance into a vintage disappearing act for his sinuous assistant and, most especially, a white-glove treatment of the Tchaikovsky score.
This bright-spirited production, from Salt Lake City’s exceedingly handsome ballet company, is sanctified by history, and deservedly so. Choreographed by Willam Christensen in 1944, it was America’s first full-length “Nutcracker” ever. Yes, folks, imagine a day when no one knew the story of young Clara and the transformative gift from her godfather, when its music did not plink from every shopping mall. Then Christensen’s ballet comes along, with its domestic charms and wartime uplift, and it’s no wonder that eventually, the “Nutcracker” phenomenon spread like a virus. If only the ensuing plethora had hewn to Christensen’s unerring feeling for art as well as entertainment.
From its first moment to its last, the tenderness, warmth and mystery of Tchaikovsky’s music is the true star here. (Terence Kern conducted the Opera House Orchestra with an especially airy, buoyant touch.) Happily, there is no dancing during the overture — the music is allowed to stir the imagination all on its own, as intended, with its rising currents of anticipation.
Once the curtain lifts, the theme of passage and transformation — from outside to inside, from reality to dream — which is central to the music, is also captured in the set design. We see carolers bundled against the snow outside a grand mansion, whose glowing windows hint at the warmth inside. When the parlor is revealed, a candlelit Christmas tree dominates, but what catches your eye is the view of the stars behind it, beckoning through huge windows that frame an infinite evening sky.
Throughout this first act there were foreshadowings of the next. Sayaka Ohtaki’s crisp windup Doll was like a deconstructed ballerina, preparing us for the radiantly harmonious Sugar Plum Fairy to come. While Clara is cradling her nutcracker doll, the ponytailed Dr. Drosselmeyer — who, as played by the magnetic Beau Pearson, had the slightly unsteady swagger of an aging rock star — mimes through shorthand gestures his plan to ignite the little girl’s dream of whiskery critters and other marvels.
Later, Drosselmeyer alone presides over the tree-growing scene, ushering in a perfect transition from home life to the realm of the imagination. With this uncluttered stage picture we can absorb all the magic of this majestic musical moment, one of the most wondrous in the ballet canon.
The second act’s fantasy land has a charmingly exotic look to it, like something out of a Diaghilev-era ballet (a nod to Fokine’s “The Firebird,” perhaps), with its glowing pink sky and golden filigreed arches and spires reaching heavenward. Nostalgic touches continue in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s entrance in a fluffy pink tutu, blindingly bright tiara and trailing golden cape, which reminded me of Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz.”
Christiana Bennett and her husband, Christopher Ruud, were a winsome pair on opening night as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. She took her time, filling out the music with a luxuriously slow, stretchy quality in her arms and torso, and he came across as personable, relaxed and refreshingly unmannered.
From end to end, this “Nutcracker” was put over with an effervescent touch. That’s undoubtedly an echo of its origins. In fact, that story in itself could be a screwball comedy. It started with an all-nighter in a San Francisco apartment, with a famed Russian ballerina demonstrating the leading roles in her stocking feet. To that Christensen, a former vaudevillian, added his own knack for three-minute sketches.
Christensen, director of the San Francisco Ballet in the 1940s, had never seen a complete “Nutcracker” before creating his own. But he got help from a couple of dancers familiar with the original 1892 production by St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet: George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova, Russian emigres touring with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. When they passed through San Francisco, they dropped in on Christensen and spent the wee hours teaching him the ballet.
Christensen was no novice in putting on big Russian ballets; before this “Nutcracker” he had been the first American to stage the complete “Coppelia” and a four-act “Swan Lake.” He went on to found Ballet West and brought the Christmas ballet with him.
Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s current director, has a soft spot for ballet history, dating to his years at the Joffrey Ballet, where he saw firsthand the merits of safeguarding important works from the past. He’s the rare artistic director who didn’t choose to scrap existing repertoire. On the contrary, working with assistants who had known Christensen (who died in 2001), Sklute added back bits of Christensen’s choreography that had dropped out over the years.
Sklute, as savvy as he is skilled, also seems uniquely positioned to be a ballet director to bring the art form into the modern age. This past summer his company was the subject of the BBC Worldwide Production’s docu-drama television series “Breaking Pointe,” which aired on the CW channel, and a second season will begin filming in January. I hope it focuses on the diversity of Sklute’s company, rather than its love affairs. To see quite a few African American dancers, including ballerinas, in a classical production was momentous indeed and another of the deeply moving facets of this jewel of a “Nutcracker.”
Ballet West at the Kennedy Center Opera House, with cast changes; through Sunday evening; tickets $45-$150; call 202-467-4600 or www.kennedy-center.org.