Because the world has turned upside down and we’re staggering through an epic discontent, there is a big, fat chicken in “The Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center.
It bobs and flaps in time with the Tchaikovsky score. It hatches a horde of darling little children dressed as baby chicks. The adorable incongruity of it all makes you laugh. For this, and countless other clever, witty and musically fluid moments in the Cincinnati Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker,” we can be truly thankful.
After all, we’ve been though too much lately for just any old poultry-free, run-of-the-mill “Nutcracker” to suffice, don’t you think?
So bring on the dancing chicken and the other novel touches that Victoria Morgan, Cincinnati Ballet’s artistic director, has woven into her sparkling version of the holiday classic, with performances at the Opera House through Sunday. The ballet’s second act is dominated by a towering, crooked, deliciously decadent-looking cake. Instead of shepherdesses, the traditional mirliton dance is taken over by pink poodles, “mirlipoos,” and a roguish male dog who bounds around and scratches his fleas.
Yet for all its originality, this “Nutcracker” has a sense of tradition, and it contains affectionate tributes to the ballet’s history. The giant plush teddy with a virtuoso solo in the first act is a nod to the dancing bear in Willam Christensen’s landmark 1944 “Nutcracker,” which was the first American production and is still performed by Ballet West. Morgan was a principal dancer with the Salt Lake City company and with San Francisco Ballet before taking the reins at Cincinnati Ballet 20 years ago.
She unveiled her “Nutcracker” in 2011, a decade after riots over police shootings of African Americans rocked Cincinnati and a time when many were reflecting on the changes that had resulted. Maybe Morgan was picking up on a spirit of optimism, or wishing to inject one, for the ballet teems with a sense of humor, love and wonder that pulls the affair together in a harmonious, meaningful way.
Stolen kisses and magical events bubble through the Stahlbaums’ Christmas party, where servants cuddle over pilfered champagne, one of the wrapped presents scoots along the floor by itself and a wine glass hovers in midair, ready for a refill. In a hint of future transformations, two elderly, white-haired guests suddenly break into the most joint-popping, acrobatic duet of the evening.
We’re introduced to young Clara (sensitively portrayed by Sophia Rose Beadie) as not only the center of attention but also as a child gifted with a profound imagination, which leads organically to her invention of the magical dream world to come. We live this fantasy with her; we see it build. Her devotion to her nutcracker doll has precedent — in the ballet’s first moments we see that Clara has an imaginary friend. It’s a poodle. (Morgan, herself a poodle owner, is poodle-obsessed. Well, there are worse things.) We see it, but it’s supposed to exist in her head, as a transitional object that escorts Clara between her home and her dream of a kingdom of culinary delights.
Food and comfort are firmly paired here. The ballet opens in the Stahlbaums’ kitchen, a melee of cooks and canoodling. In bursts Clara, chasing her little dog and dodging the dinner. Seen in context, the later appearance of a dancing chicken is a Jungian inevitability.
Morgan has a free hand with the Tchaikovsky score, which is performed by the Opera House Orchestra. Some rearranged elements in the second act are infelicitous. Chisako Oga’s Sugar Plum Fairy offers us her delicate solo rather abruptly as soon as we arrive in the Land of Sweets, and as a result, her later appearance with her Cotton Candy Cavalier (Cervilio Miguel Amador) feels anticlimactic, especially since his variation has been cut.
One of the prettiest snow scenes in memory unfurls under arches of ice, where Maizyalet Velázquez and Patric Palkens, the elegant Snow Queen and King, lead a flurry of Snowflakes in loose, airy shifts. (Carrie Robbins’s costume designs are delightful throughout.) The whole scene evokes the mystery and grace of swirling drifts. Here as elsewhere, the scenic effects are light, never heavy-handed.
Morgan’s first act is deftly through-choreographed. There is an especially beautiful, telling gestural moment midway through the party scene, when Clara’s parents are urging their guests to join in the dancing. In doing so they are the very embodiment of welcome, coaxing their friends with arms flung open and breastbones high — a picture of confidence, warmth and the promise of joy in communal celebration. This is a lovely space to inhabit.
The Cincinnati Ballet performs “The Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Sunday, Nov. 27. Tickets $59-$250. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.