Dance Review

Effects, Sentiment Lift Pennsylvania Ballet's 'Nutcracker'

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

There is surely no more charming amalgam of the American fantasy of Christmas than "The Nutcracker," with its celebration of children, gifts and gluttony. But I don't think we'd give the ballet a second look without Tchaikovsky's music, so full of shimmery enchantment no matter how familiar it is. The chance to hear that glorious music in live performance was the chief attraction of the Pennsylvania Ballet's production of the holiday favorite, which opened Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House and repeats through Sunday.

The Philadelphia-based company performs George Balanchine's version of the ballet, which has a seamless relationship to Tchaikovsky's light, skimming spirit and gathering sense of wonder. Whether you believe the music's promise is fulfilled by what's happening onstage, however, may depend on how you feel about children claiming your attention for large stretches of the evening.

Most of them are culled from local ballet schools, and they are a spirited and polished lot, but it's a full 50 minutes into the program before there's any professional dancing to speak of -- that would be the snow scene, the ballet highlight of this production. This company doesn't take any longer to get to the Land of Snow than any other traditional account does, but somehow the first act feels more leisurely; perhaps that's due to the mellow ambiance of the opening party scene. Here, the Stahlbaums have matters firmly in hand: Young Marie (a.k.a. Clara, in other versions) and her brother Fritz are eagerly bouncy, but for the most part they and their little friends are well-behaved, as you'd expect in a 19th-century German household.

The snow scene puts the company's fine corps de ballet on view, and they render the swift footwork and sudden swirlings this way and that with airy effortlessness. This was also the case for the Waltz of the Flowers, led by Amy Aldridge's supple Dewdrop.

The many children add an ample cute factor, but one of their number was a true scene-stealer: Peter Weil, who was nephew to Marie's godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, in the first act, and played the human incarnation of her nutcracker in the second. When he used the centuries-old language of ballet mime to tell Julie Diana's Sugarplum Fairy of his adventures, his gestures were grand, sweeping and clear and his whole bearing reflected the excitement of the tale.

Are you a fan of special effects? In this production, you get a good, long look at the twinkly and impressively expandable Christmas tree, of course (in Balanchine's own words, "the ballet is the tree"), and at one other bewitched Stahlbaum possession: The nutcracker doll's four-poster bed, where Marie's wooden toy recuperates after being stepped on by Fritz. After the rain of cheese chunks clears from the lively rat vs. toy soldier battle scene, not only has the bed grown to full size but it has been promoted to soloist rank. As the music swells to evoke Elysian heights, the bed glides around and around all by itself on the empty stage. Marie is in there, somewhere under the covers, but really, this is the bed's moment. Big moment for the bed.

You may never again feel so grateful that at least the music was live. Beatrice Jona Affron conducted the Opera House Orchestra.

But all in all, this is a version that may please children more than adults.

Then again, who can say for sure? My reservations about this production won't matter much to audiences who are wild about "The Nutcracker" as an institution -- families pursuing a cherished holiday tradition or engaging in a one-time splurge. When we're talking about such an icon of popular affection, what difference does it make that students hold down the show until well into the evening, or that there are portions devoted to mechanical scenic effects, with no dancing at all?

Lob a hailstorm of quibbles at it, but "The Nutcracker" endures, working its magic on those to whom it has a meaning that goes well beyond dance values. It's impossible to overlook its strengths: It is, unfailingly, a bright, joyous spectacle, uncomplicated and straightforward. In uncertain times, the Stahlbaum household looks especially warm and reassuring; the beloved music may recall childhoods past; the antics of children may strike some as delightfully refreshing.

None of these qualities has much to do with the art of ballet, though. After the stagecraft and costuming and youngsters and naturalistic interactions, ballet dancing is a tangential aspect of most any "Nutcracker" production.

That's what I'm most concerned about: Despite the expense and the monumental effort ballet troupes take on to produce a run of shows -- however lucrative they may be -- I suspect that the faux snow and candy fantasia don't do as much as we might wish to hook ticketholders on the art form itself. For if that were the case, after all these years of "Nutcrackers," we'd be experiencing a ballet boom to light up the sky.

There is no performance Thursday. Performances continue Friday and Saturday afternoon and evening, and Sunday afternoon.

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