The holiday entertainment currently at Baltimore's Mechanic Theatre brings us not merely another version of "The Nutcracker," but a virtually new ballet campany as well. The Maryland Ballet, which has had more than the usual share of institutional crises over the past decade or so, has been reconstituted as the Baltimore Ballet, under the new artistic directorship of Alfonso Cata. Cata's "Nutcracker" production is doubling as the company's first public exposure.
Cata, who's had a substantial career as a dancer (with Stuttgart and New York City Ballet, among others) and company director (Geneva, Frankfurt), only arrived in Baltimore a couple of months ago and was obliged to assemble the troupe and mount the production pretty much from scratch. Given these cirumstances, his achievement seems considerable. This is a "Nutcracker" of modest means and pretensions, but it is also cozy, charming, lively and faithful to the spirit, at least, of the fairy tale-cumethical parable of the original ballet.
The simplified choreography -- tailored to the young, nicely trained but largely inexperience dancers -- is less advanced, say, than that of the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker," but not much so. The production enjoys the benefits of designs by William Pitkin, lighting by Jennifer Tipton and a very able 40-piece orchestra under the firm if workaday hand of John Head.
Though Cata acknowledges Balanchine's "Nutcracker" (in which he's danced) as his model, he provides a number of twists of his own, of varying effectiveness. The scene isn't Germany, but Baltimore's historic Mount Vernon Square, delightfully pictured on the act curtain. Drosselmeyer becomes a kindly godfather in a Santa suit. Little Clara is given an older sister Mary, who with her boyfriend Nathaniel performs all the chief dance roles, from Snow King and Queen to Sugar Plum and Cavalier. With the main company of 18 amplified by students, dancing in the party scene is minimal and fairly rudimentary elsewhere. The Act ii divertissements, however, are quite presentable -- Viktoria Page is wonderfully svelte and leggy in the Arabian variation and the Marzipan shepherdesses are led most graciously by a young ballerina. One touch that's dispensable: the hokey medley of carols before Tchaikovsky's score. It is jarringly out of place.
The production continues every day through Dec. 31.