We went to see Cleveland Ballet’s Nutcracker Suite at the Hanna Theatre on Friday. It stayed close to the traditional story and the traditional use of Tchaikovsky’s music, but achieved uncommon success by using its resources well.
“Resources” as in human resources. Cleveland Ballet’s Nutcracker put many dancers on stage by using young ballet students as children at the Christmas party, as Little Mice, Soldiers, and Angels. Cleveland Ballet’s Young Trainees and Youth Company portrayed Big Mice and Snowflakes. Nutcrackers are not always done this way. Some ballet companies with an abundance of adult professional dancers elect to fill some or all of these child-friendly roles with adult dancers but that would seem to miss opportunities to anchor the performance in the community, attract innumerable family members, and provide valuable performing experience to student dancers.
Cleveland Ballet’s Nutcracker begins in the traditional manner in a family’s home on the night before Christmas. The audience gets introduced to the dancers who, as in most Nutcracker productions, don’t dance in the first part of Act I. Instead, they act out a typical holiday party with parent / child relationships, guests, presents, sibling rivalry, and a preadolescent crush.
What little dancing we do see in the early part of Act I is carefully framed as part of mundane reality. In Cleveland Ballet’s version the adults and children join together in a social dance, Godfather Drosselmeier’s Apprentice (Rainer Alejandro Diaz Martinez) shows off his ballet chops in a brief solo, and the young protagonist, Caroline (Marla Minadeo), dances for her new toy, the Nutcracker doll.
In the best of Nutcrackers, the Xmas party can seem dull. Some ticket holders find it so ho-hum that they deliberately skip the entire first act. But the Christmas party serves to draw in audience members who haven’t seen much dance. And even sophisticated audience members enjoy Act II more when they allow the characters and the musical themes to grow on them throughout Act I.
Act I continues by depicting Caroline’s dream in which she witnesses a fantastic battle between the mice and the toy soldiers and, crucially, intervenes to save the Apprentice / Nutcracker Prince from the Mouse King, a truly fearsome Jason Wang. After a transition featuring the growing Christmas tree with Tchaikovsky’s music enhanced by the Singing Angels performing live, Act I ends in the Land of Snow, a final transition to abstraction, dance for the sake of dance.
Of course, it’s best to have an adult onstage with the young performers, someone to give them a nudge if they’re momentarily confused. In the party scene in Act I, for instance, there are many adult dancers on stage in the role of parents and family members, perfect camouflage for steering a young performer aright. At the beginning of Act II, the Queen aka Sugar Plum Fairy (Lauren Stenroos when we watched on Friday night) led the procession of little Angels; the young students fulfilled their assignment perfectly but if anything had gone wrong we can easily imagine Stenroos helping out while remaining sweetly in character.
Different versions of Nutcracker take considerable liberties with the original Lev Ivanov choreography for Sugar Plum’s solo variation, which follows immediately after the procession of Angels. Tchaikovsky’s music with its heavenly celesta provides accompaniment for what’s almost inevitably an outstanding variation, whether the performer emphasizes quick, light relevés and perfectly timed descents or grand and regal movement as did Stenroos.
All of the travels to magic lands during Act II are part of Caroline’s dream and appearing throughout that dream is a character we met early in Act I, Aunt Sophia, danced on Friday night by Silken Kelly. Aunt Sophia brings in the 2 Spanish dancers with their ruffled flamenco skirts, their fans, and their backbends, on Friday night danced by Company members Madison Campbell and Rebeca Ramirez Vargas.
The China variation presents Victor Jarvis as a soloist with 9 China Dolls recruited from among the Young Trainees and the Youth Company. Jarvis manages to make himself and his air tours look Asian and Diaz brings his energy to an applause-getting finale. In one of its few departures from traditional use of the Tchaikovsky score, Cleveland Ballet’s China variation continues to music for Marzipan or Dance of the Reed Flutes.
Company principal Luna Sayag shows off her extensions as the Arabian Princess, ably partnered by Jason Wang.
In the Russia variation, we see a corps of Matryoshka Dolls, student dancers with a sprinkling of dancers from the Youth Company. The principals do the featured dancing, though, with Kelly showing her extensions and her rhythmically precise pointe work and Diaz again reaching into his grab bag of dynamic feats. Minadeo continues to excel in this variation as a young dancer / actor, performing her choreography with clarity and confidence and ably inhabiting the central role of Caroline.
The Waltz of the Flowers was built around 6 Company members and 2 Young Trainees, but it was Sam Meredith as Drosselmeier who exceeded expectations here, partnering Kelly in overhead lifts.
Nutcracker presents a series of potentially show-stealing variations but music and narrative reach a climactic finale with the Grand Pas performed Friday by Stenroos and Guest Artist Alan Obuzor. The royal couple took full advantage of their moment in the spotlight, executing a scary series of pirouettes into fish dives.
Cleveland Ballet’s Nutcracker doesn’t have a lavish budget for lighting, costume and décor, but it makes effective, satisfying use of human resources, especially student dancers. This production sold out for all performances, 6 counting the dress rehearsal.
In May Cleveland Ballet goes down the rabbit hole with Alice in a world premiere choreographed by Tony-nominated Margo Sappington. 8pm Friday, 5/11/2018 and 11am Saturday 5/12/2018 at the Ohio Theater. For tickets $25 – $69 go (http://www.playhousesquare.org/events/detail/alice-in-wonderland) HERE. Learn more about Cleveland Ballet at ClevelandBallet.org.