Cleveland Stars in Local Nutcracker

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On a Sunday afternoon we drove to the near west side for a matinee performance of a different Nutcracker, one that makes reference to Cleveland history.

City Ballet of Cleveland’s Uniquely Cleveland Nutcracker (UCN) takes us to Cleveland in the early 1900’s and to a Christmas party attended by prominent Cleveland families, families whose names still resonate today. Halle, Gund, Mather, Severance and, in the Godfather Drosselmeyer role, electrical wizard Charles Brush.

Instead of Marie or Clara, UCN gives us Katherine Murphy Halle (Maia Atzemis), daughter of the Halle family. The Godfather’s Assistant is danced by Daniel Cho. But, historical footnotes aside, it all proceeds much like any Nutcracker until local history adds a twist and the Battle becomes a baseball game which harkens back the 1920 World Series. (Which Cleveland won!) The baseball game begins unobtrusively with dreaming Katherine negotiating with a larcenous mouse for a baseball. But before we know it, the mice are practicing baseball skills – pitching, catching, sliding – and wearing baseball uniforms. A very literal baseball game is soon underway. There’s the crack of a bat and runners working their way around the bases. But the passion of competition, Tchaikovsky’s martial music, and the Mouse King pitcher’s spitball (ewww!) soon leads to a deadly rhubarb. Yes, Dear Reader, just when the Mouse King (Ian Smith) is about to kill the Nutcracker Prince, Katherine intervenes at great risk to herself and the Nutcracker rallies to kill the Mouse King. Whew!

And so we go on to Snow, the Nutcracker’s ballet blanc. Snow Queen Lieneke Matte and Snow King Benjamin Shepard – both excellent classical dancers from Verb Ballets – join Katherine and the Nutcracker Prince and 11 dancers in the ensemble, nearly all of them City Ballet of Cleveland company members, apprentices, or alumnae. Snow falls from the fly gallery. The acapella group Nightingale ( sings live along with the recorded score. The white costumes by Ray Zander add to the spell. Ahh!

In a mime sequence early in Act II, the Sugar Plum Fairy (Adrienne Chan) asks the Nutcracker Prince what happened. The mime sequence that follows is a recap of the Battle and we often tune it out, seeing it as a ho-hum moment that sometimes descends into incomprehensible badness (as when Macaulay Culkin scowls through it in the otherwise laudable film, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (1993)}. But in Sunday’s performance, Cho and Tchaikovsky’s music brought the Battle back to us and allowed us to feel the danger the Prince was in and the crucial part that Katherine played in his victory. Rescuing or being rescued by a loved one is a powerful romantic trope, but it resonates only if we feel that love and life are in peril.

When we wrote about Cho (the Nutcracker Prince) last summer ( we described him as interested primarily in contemporary ballet and contemporary dance but in UCN he revealed a different side of his artistry, a passion and an aptitude for mime.

During the dances that followed – Spain, Arabia, China, and Russia among others – the technical levels of the dancers varied, but all the performances were notable for the smiles of dancers genuinely enjoying their time on stage.

Tchaikovsky is the gold standard for ballet scores and Breen Center is known for its excellent acoustics. Still, credit Audio Engineer Michael A. Mearini and the tech crew for a very positive listening experience. The Dance of the Reed Flutes came through clearly and the orchestral crescendos did not break up, a happy state of affairs that doesn’t happen without someone carefully balancing levels.

With its many roles and its audience appeal, Nutcracker always reaches out to its community, but City Ballet of Cleveland’s Uniquely Cleveland Nutcracker makes an additional effort by weaving details from Cleveland history into the well-known Christmas ballet.

We watched City Ballet of Cleveland’s Uniquely Cleveland Nutcracker at Breen Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, 12/16/2018.

Next for City Ballet of Cleveland, Sleeping Beauty on Saturday 5/25/2019. Watch for updates.

Victor Lucas

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