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Mr. B’s Nutcracker dances on

Pennsylvania Ballet

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker

at the Academy of Music, Philadelphia PA through Dec. 31


Artists of the Pennsylvania Ballet
Photo credits: Alexander Iziliaev

 For years Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker had little competition from other live productions, but now all through December there is a bounty of holiday fare (and alternatives) to choose from.   But, The Nutcracker remains one of the biggest audience draws, a family affair for many, and if the Dec. 8 performance was any indication it has turned into Saturday date night for both young straight and gay couples.

Pennsylvania Ballet is one of only a few companies that is licensed to perform it, (in the current version since 1987) and some years have been better than others but consistently solid revivals even with some inevitably rote performances during the near month long run. And part of the reason was the ballet itself. 

Act I can lumber along if everything isn’t moving with character energy as the adults socialize with each other, while their children play games, open presents, before the guests break into a tepid parlor mazurka. Then there is E.T.A. Hoffman’s scary Russian 1816 folk tale about a young girl’s Marie’s fantasy dream about her toy Nutcracker coming to life and battling the Mouse King, can come off as too bizarre or even campy.

Marie’s brother Fritz is the bad boy little brother and otherwise the life of this dull holiday party. Herr Drosselmeier enters with his oversized toy boxes with his life-size dancer dolls. First the Concubines in a charmingly mechanical duet. Next the toy soldier is wound up and dancing to Tchaikovsky’s symphonic march by Ashton Roxander with steely eyed (and haunting) precision,  Later Roxander is the sinewy hoop jumping commando of the buoyant Candy Cane troupe.

Charles Askegard doesn’t modernize Herr Drosselmeier, he gives a vintage classic performance punctuated with pantomime of old world theatricals.

Balanchine’s minted version had its premiere on New York City Ballet in 1954. It remains an amalgam of Russian classical ballet from the Imperial Ballet school of his youth, but in a more streamlined Americanized version. The Dewdrop scene, for instance, has the luster of clever showdance that Balanchine was fond of after working in Hollywood and the Broadway stage.  Still, by now this 50s classic can look dated to contemporary audiences.

The ballet kicks into high gear at the end of act I as when the ballerina snowflakes blow through the corps de ballet Snowflakes scene.   The voices of the mighty Philadelphia Boys Choir serenading the dancers from the Academy’s balcony boxes. The Snowflakes fly, in this choreographically intricate scene with its breezy, quicksilver pointe work and unison patterns that keep evolving. The PABallet corps de ballet women danced it with in this precision and glittering esprit.

Since becoming PABallet artistic director Angel Corella has been polishing Act I to make it more animated within the aesthetic requirements of the Balanchine Trust. Also fueling performance vigor throughout the run by rotating five lead casts in the principal dance roles as well as switching off plum character roles among the soloists, demi-soloists and corps de ballet, and most vital, sharper focus on the technical aspects of Balanchine’s neoclassicism.

And the Act II Divertissements allows for vintage Russian choreographic magic by Balanchine. Among the standout soloists in this performance.

Sydney Dolan commanded as Dewdrop, with mile-high battement, and breezy jetes and point work. A little jagged transitional phrases, but overall a gives a dazzling performance.  

Russell Drucker and Marjorie Feiring flawless in their deportment of European drawing room hosts, get to let loose in the Act II with Drucker as a clown drag diva Mother Ginger, with her 8 Polichinelles children dancing out from under her skirt.  And Feiring proves the sultriest spell (and technique) as Coffee in the Arabian dance solo.

Balanchine’s most lustrous classicism is built into the grand pas de deux in the Nutcracker finale, danced by principals Mayara Pineiro and Zecheng LIang as The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Thrilling pacing and clarity of movement by these dancers in their technical and interpretive artistry. Liang is a muscled and a lyrical prince.  He can execute adagio grande pirouettes as controlled and centered before he pumps them out at high speed.  His circular jete run around the Academy stage is one for the books. Pineiro arabesques are diamond hard, her pirouette runs and expressive carriage is riveting prima ballerina classicism .

And kudos to all of the child performers, many attending PABallet’s school of dance. Ellie Sidlow as Marie and Aoile Mary DiPalma her little brother (and scene stealing mischief maker) Fritz. Rowan Duffy returns as Drosselmeier’s gallant Nephew/Nutcracker.

Ballet Orchestra Conductor Beatrice Jona Affron detailing and pacing with the dancers sumptuous.  Tchaikovsky’s vibrant symphonic rhythms fueled by Ballet Orchestra’s percussion line, pulsing through the strings and powering those flute arabesques. Among the outstanding soloists in the Academy pit, Harpist Mindy Cutcher, violinist Luigi Mazzocchi who once again makes Tchaikovsky’s violin lines breathtaking every year.