If "The Nutcracker" is ballet's version of comfort food, then American Ballet Theatre's production is a big scoop of mac-and-cheese. It's no more and no less than the standard fare: mild, uncomplicated and relatively unsurprising. Since Kevin McKenzie, the company's artistic director, trimmed away the oddball notions that cried out for the dustbin before its last performance here in 2001, his "Nutcracker" falls squarely in line with tradition. It gets the job done.
Tradition being what "The Nutcracker's" appeal is all about, this is good news for audiences for the sold-out run at the Kennedy Center Opera House that concludes Sunday. The dancers are handsomely dressed, with a few exceptions, and the sets offer satisfying eyefuls of Victorian luxe in the first act and floral abundance in the second. All the other essentials are present and accounted for: strong performers in the leading roles, a bunch of children from local ballet schools running around in the party scene, a glittering Christmas tree that grows and snow that falls, the usual national dances with their humdrum stereotypes (the Arabians are mysterious, the Chinese are cheerfully submissive) and the climactic classical pas de deux that caps the whole affair like a big stick-on bow.
It's the complete package, to be sure. But what this ballet lacks is expressive power. McKenzie shows us Clara's fascination with her nutcracker man-doll, given to her by her godfather Drosselmeyer. Later, when she dreams up a live Nutcracker Prince, we see tender romantic stirrings in their dance together. But when the dancers from Spain, Russia and points south take over the second act, Clara is forgotten. The Sugar Plum Fairy, who in most productions guides Clara like a big sister through the exotic visions she encounters, is an afterthought in this ballet -- she's just the last in a string of novelty acts. She has no established connection to Clara. Where in other versions she is the model of radiant femininity to which the younger girl can aspire, here she is an obligatory character but not a thematically important one. In a more elegantly structured story, the duet that the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with her Cavalier could tell us about the joys of mature love that await Clara.
But in McKenzie's view, the segment is simply an attractive display of technique. The meaning has been lost.
For many viewers, the technique is enough and meaning is neither sought nor missed. This "Nutcracker" will suffice, for ABT has no lack of powerful and appealing dancers with technique to burn. But there can be poetry in "The Nutcracker," there can be a fulfilling resolution of tensions and emotions, there can be a conveying of ideals. That is what can lend the ballet a sense of urgency and drive beyond what even the most accomplished technique can offer. And that is what is missing in McKenzie's reading.
Considering the rather thin material, Wednesday's opening-night cast carried on just about as well as one could ask, led by Xiomara Reyes as a convincingly youthful and darling Clara. She is an exceptionally warm and responsive dancer; she makes you believe that the story is truly happening to her and that she is delighted with every bit of it. (Except for the bit where her nutcracker gets broken, but she's over that in a jiff.) McKenzie injects the first-act party scene with some sour notes from the dancers cast as parents -- some of them react too hotly when the kids misbehave, and one guest carries on a weepy, prolonged spat with an older woman, presumably her mother -- but Reyes's easy charm helps to soften the atmosphere. Later, she and Herman Cornejo, her Nutcracker Prince, display their customary enchanting rapport. It's too bad the choreography allows us only a glimpse of what Cornejo, with his buoyancy and refined line, can do.
McKenzie showed admirable restraint in his conception of the snow scene, which takes place in moonlight (Tom Skelton and Rui Rita created the lighting, which is a boon throughout) with just a delicate dusting of flakes in the air. The Snowflake dancers themselves, however, weren't always so picturesque. Here as elsewhere, the corps de ballet was in need of tighter reins.
The Waltz of the Flowers remains a puzzle: Who came up with those unfortunate shades of bread-mold gray and salmon-orange for the costumes?
And why is there so little waltzing? The choreography here is credited not to McKenzie but to John Meehan, director of ABT's Studio Company. One imagines him sitting on his hands and squeezing his eyes shut as he forced himself to disobey Tchaikovsky -- and anyone's natural musical impulse. Your heart cries out for the dancers to pair up and sweep around the stage, but if you blink, you'll miss the quick moment when that happens.
Paloma Herrera's supple Sugar Plum Fairy was touched with poignancy -- she is so greatly endowed with physical gifts, yet seems so shy, even needy. Marcelo Gomes's sensitive Cavalier gave her ample shoulders to lean on. You feel little elation for poor Clara in the end, when she wakes up from her happy vision to find that her doll cabinet has been cleared of its much-loved inhabitants, presumably because she has grown up rather dramatically overnight. Odd, since the child is clearly still crazy about the one doll she keeps: the nutcracker.
But then, clarity of concept had already been left behind.
Charles Barker conducted.
Performances continue through Sunday with cast changes. The Kennedy Center says patrons can call for last-minute ticket availability.