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PABallet continues to polish its Nutcracker

On New Year’s Eve, Pennsylvania Ballet finishes up their marathon three-week 50th Anniversary run of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. The ballet a technical barometer of Balanchine’s vintage neoclassical style and it is a showcase for the whole company, that highlights Angel Corella’s core goals as artistic director to nurture an elite roster of dancers from the principals to the company apprentices.

Balanchine’s minted 1954 production of Nutcracker if not done at the highest performance level, can, by now look dated and shopworn, but happy to report that a mid-run performance December 21 proved PAB’s current Nutcracker is as lustrous as ever.

The biggest challenge is the first act, depicting a 19th-century Euro-centric Christmas celebration that is largely pantomime acting, which can devolve to ballet pagaentry and can lumber along.  Corella makes sure that does not happen, with precision pacing and having the scenes burst with ensemble esprit and characterizations. No one is in the background, everyone onstage is animated with naturalized intent, especially the children from the PAB school.

Principal Ian Hussey, (who danced the Cavalier at the matinee performance Dec. 21) delivered a magical performance that evening as Herr Drosselmeir, full of character intrigue. He brings with him the Harlequins and making the most of their brief scene, Nayara Lopez and Kathryn Manger captivated with their steely pointe work.  Then, the highlight of the party scene, dance wise, the thrilling Tin Soldier solo by Peter Weill, flawlessly executed in soldierly sync with Tchaikovsky’s galloping scherzo.  In the Act II diversessments, Manger is captivating also leading the Marzipan Shepherdess quintet.

It is so easy for the mousey fight scene to lumber along, Balanchine was not too inventive with fantasy fight scenes, there is a lot of scrambling around, but the pacing and the campy attack by the corps in those bulbous costumes make this scene fast and fun. For the children in the audience, a feast for the eyes, with the engorged Christmas tree and spectacular light show, the life-size Nutcracker soldier and the junior military band and troops bringing storybook visuals.   

As Marie and her brother Fritz, Audrey Tavor and Ellie Sidlow, are complete scene stealers. Rowan Duffy reprises his always valiant performance as The Newphew/Nutcracker who battles the Mouse King and escorts Marie into the land of the Sweets.

Many years of Balanchine’s Nutcracker opening nights in the Snowflakes scene ending act one, the corps de ballet can struggle with Balanchine’s requisite ensemble precision that ignites the ballet. Not an issue in this mid-run performance they proved of crystalline ensemble precision and esprit de corps. Serenaded from the first balcony by the Philadelphia Girls Choir, this was a perfect scene to experience on this Solstice eve performance.

All of the divertissement in Act II, vintage Balanchine distillations from his training years at the Imperial Russian court. Among the outstanding soloists in this performance- Etienne Diaz nailed the candy cane hoop dance, punctuating it with his silky aerials and glint in his eyes and the backup troupe equally buoyant.

There have been, thankfully, adjustments made to some the ethnic stereotypes in productions of the Nutcracker including Balanchine’s version. ‘Tea’ for instance, with its cartoonish stereotyping which by now represents nothing more than an offensive racial stereotype, thankfully have been erased. 

Marjorie Fierling as Coffee in what used to be called The Arabian Dance, in her silky, harem costume.  It’s Balanchine exotica and Fierling is anything but submissive to it, owning it with sultry mystique and smoldering gaze.

Alexandra Hughes as lead Dewdrop Flower for Tchaikovsky’s Waltz, Hughes captivated with air slicing jetes and shimmering pointe work. The corps Flowers, led by Nayara Lopes and Jacqueline Callahan, all sustaining flawless ensemble balletic line.

In the finale, Sterling Baca and Dayesi Torriente have shimmering chemistry as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

Torriente seemed a bit tentative in her first appearance with the little Angels, but from the moment she took the stage with Baca in the grand pas de deux, Toriente she danced with breathtaking artistry and lyrical expression.

Baca a most attendant Cavalier and the sparks flew when this couple hit those romantic penche arabesques and crucial lifts. Palpable chemistry and drew lusty applause by the time they landed that famous Poisson signature dive.

Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra conductor Beatrice Jona Affron continues to ignite this score with clarity and dimension in countless performances of the Nutcracker in the Academy of Music over her 25 years as Pennsylvania Ballet’s Maestro.