Fort Worth — The guests at the Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve party have not even arrived when mayhem erupts—Grandfather aims his rifle willy-nilly and Fritz swings the tail of a dead rat over poor Clara’s head. Nor does it calm down when the guests arrive there are tussles with a cake, the Fat Girl stamping a doll, Grandfather stealing a slug of whisky, little boys with toy guns sneaking in to bedevil the girls with a racket. Yes, it is that time of year when Texas Ballet Theater unleashes Ben Stevenson’s lively—if not manic—version of The Nutcracker. So much takes place that it is easy to miss some of the antics.
The mayhem makes an ironic contrast to the elegant setting and sumptuous dress, from little girls in ringlets and petticoats, boys in short breeches, men in frockcoats and women in gorgeous gowns of chartreuse, silver, deep purple and muted green. Grandfather—scene-stealer that he is—wears a smart red and gold-trimmed military coat.
Unlike Balanchine’s Nutcracker, Stevenson’s version casts adults in the pivotal roles of Clara, the child heroine, and Fritz, her very naughty brother. The surprise this year was that Clara (Aoi Takahashi) really did look childlike, wide-eyed and eager. The same could not be said of Fritz (Drake Humphreys), who despite his grand leaps captured not an iota of the boyish. When Herr Drosselmeyer rolls out the gigantic cabbage, which opens up to reveal Colombine, Clara and Fritz are so entranced they mimic the doll. Fritz can’t leave the Soldier Doll alone, and after the third or fourth yank on the Doll’s arm, he gets a surprise when the Doll gives him a mighty slap that knocks him to the ground.
We see no more of Fritz after the party, but since this is a story about a girl and her dreams, Clara gets to aim her fateful slipper at the King Rat, saving the Nutcracker. As a reward, the Nutcracker (transformed into a Prince) escorts her on a swan-shaped sleigh to the Land of the Snow and later to the Kingdom of Sweets.
The quiet majesty of the Land of the Snow and the delicate Snowflakes delight her so much that she flits in an out of their ranks, her short white slip fitting in well with their long white tutus. The Snowflakes too flit in and out, with easy leaps as they turn their heads in a beguiling backward glance. The Snowflakes seem barely to touch ground; the Snow Queen (Leticia Oliveira) seems mostly airborne with long, sustained lifts by the Snow Prince (Andre Silva). Held high aloft, her limbs shooting out like a sunburst, she is both serene and radiant.
Clara is just as giddy in the Kingdom of Sweets, licking bonbons the little cooks have offered. To her delight, one brilliant divertissement after the other follows: the saucy Spanish, the exotic and supple Arabian (Robin Banger), manipulated in striking angles by Brett Young, and the Chinese (Riley Moyano and Shawn Howell), who descend from above brandishing pole and scimitar. Once on the ground, they clash and cartwheel between each other’s legs. The Mirlitons (Alexandra Farber, Nicole Von Enck and David Schrenk) in their violet and pale pink Bo Peep dress are delectable, tracing intricate patterns as they crisscross one another, switching at quarter-turn angles like tiny wind-up toys.
In the Waltz of the Flowers, Katelyn Chenaghan seems borne by the wind, leaping into Paul Adams’ arms and remaining suspended high over his shoulders. She descends as easily as a leaf, only to leap again and again. The other Flowers sweep in and out, she returns and once more goes flying. It’s quite stunning.
Anticipation reaches its height with the return of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince. They are meant to be everything beautiful and magical in Clara’s eyes. Carolyn Judson performed with crystalline clarity but without much warmth, while Jiyan Dai had some impressive leaps, but was otherwise inexpressive.
Despite the lack of a live orchestra, the program was charming, proceeding at a lively clip. It ends on a perfect note—the dancers from the Spanish divertissement to the Waltz of the Flowers return to make a quick good-by to Clara, and just as quickly she is whisked back home.
» The Nutcracker continues through Dec. 27; and the TBT’s Nutty Nutcracker is Dec. 18
» Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine