’Twas the weekend before Christmas, and all across the country, sugarplum fairies were dropping and waltzing flowers were wilting. Except in Baltimore, where from party guests to polichinelles, every dancer in “The Nutcracker” could not stop smiling.
In an unprecedented community collaboration, 120 dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts performed “The Nutcracker” at the Modell Center for the Performing Arts on Friday and Saturday. Below them in the pit was the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and behind them were three-story backdrops painted by students at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Were the School for the Arts students as polished as professional ballerinas? No. But in so many cities, like Washington, the professionals are waltzing to tinny recordings, and by December’s end, may look bored out of their minds. There is so much to be said for watching smiling teens dance slightly out of sync while listening to gorgeous live harp glissandos. In the pit, conductor Cristian Macelaru slowed the tempos down slightly, and when the ebullient young dancers did step to the music, their amateur status didn’t matter.
Former Washington Ballet dancer Barry Hughson smartly choreographed this production knowing male dancers would be in short supply. Rather than a Rat King, he’s opted for a slinky Mouse Queen (Janea Williams) who stalked around the Christmas tree, stabbing her pointe shoes at pint-sized soldiers. Clara (Hannah Myers) and the walnut-cracking prince (Quincy Dow) weren’t technically the best dancers onstage, but they were the smoothest; she stepped into his secure lifts like they had been paired up for a decade. Dow was one of several promising African American dancers in the cast. Xhosa Scott brought puckish charm to the role of Fritz, while Brian Bennett was a strong, stoic partner in “Arabian Dance,” and the audience responded with rhythmic clapping to a trio of young men leaping to Tchaikovsky’s “Russian Trepak.”
This crowd was decidedly more blue collar than the typical Kennedy Center set (buy a Natty Boh at intermission and bring it back in with you!). But few things are more heartening to a dancegoer than seeing people of all incomes and ages enjoy a ballet. Call it the “Nutcracker” spirit, and hope it lasts all year, or at least returns for a longer run next December.