As “The Nutcracker” opens in theaters around the nation this first weekend in December, there are plenty of cynics and critics who mistake the traditional with conventional in this holiday classic. But it is really the predictable elements that provide the solid framework for the individual artistry that makes or breaks each performance.
And individual artistry was on full display opening night on the newly renovated Capitol Theater stage as each pas de deux was more exquisite than the last, while the narrative of a family Christmas party became almost inconsequential.
There is nothing more exciting than watching a dancer develop the role on stage, navigating the difficult steps with increasing ease and confidence, while her partner absorbs her confidence and the two hit balances, lifts, leaps and turns beyond each one’s separate capabilities.
On opening night the momentum kicked off with an energized Snow Pas de Deux. First soloist Beau Pearson seemed to have to resist easily sweeping his feather-light partner Sayaka Ohtaki too high off her legs. Ohtaki is a dancer capable of subtle changes in quality and mood within the pas de deux. When dancing independent of her superb partner, Ohtaki is self-governing, but the instant they move back together she folds softly into him and Pearson accepts her. An exceptionally precise Snowflake corps de ballet ended Act I on a high note.
Act II was equally impressive. Soloist Beckanne Sisk and principal Christopher Ruud danced the Waltz of the Flowers pas de deux with flair, making difficult lifts, turns and balances look absolutely carefree. Each of these dancers takes ownership of the choreography while flirtatiously relating to one another.
The closing grand pas deux danced by Katherine Lawrence and Tom Mattingly was a masterful display of technical feats. Lawrence and Mattingly are surprisingly ego-less in their performances, leaving our imaginations to linger between the exemplary timing and uncanny exactness.
In all the years I have been to Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker,” I have never seen Act II performed so consistently throughout. It wasn’t until principal dancer Arolyn William’s free yet meticulous performance with her Mirlitons that I realized that all the divertissements in the second act were outstanding. And although I very much missed seeing Jacqueline Straughan in the Arabian Dance, Allison DeBona was strong and sensuous in the part. The Russian Dance with Christopher Sellars, Chase O’Connell, Zachary Prentice, Logan Martin, and Joshua Whitehead stole the show.
I found the vaudeville-style, broad humor to be lacking in Act I. The Grandparents at the party scene seemed toned down as did the mice – although Katlyn Addison was a sophisticated yet animated Frau Stahlbaum and Alex MacFarlan added dimension to the Nutcracker Prince by dancing the part, rather than pantomiming the role. I rarely mention the child who plays Clara, but Ann Bigelow was very natural and honest and a joy to watch. Choreographically, Clara needs more to do than put her face in her hands, but Bigelow made the most of that.
I hope reducing the slapstick was an anomaly on opening night and isn’t purposefully trimmed down in favor of a sleeker or more sophisticated tone. I guess I’ll have to go again mid-run to find out.
Ballet West’s ‘The Nutcracker’
Bottom line • Act II is this year’s “Nutcracker” standout with superb individual performances throughout.
When • Dec. 12-15; Dec. 17-24; Dec. 26-28, Dec. 30. 7 p.m. on weeknights, plus matinees on weekends.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $29-$79, arttix.org or call 801-355-ARTS
Running time • Two hours with one 10-minute intermission.