Dallas — Advertisements leading up to opening night of Texas Ballet Theater’s The Nutcracker presented at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House in Dallas promised a forecast of snow, regardless of the actual temperature outside. While one can always expect a blanket of white at Act I’s end (it is the snow scene after all), another guarantee is that the performance will be one to remember.
And it’s not hard to see why. Take a large cast of elite ballet dancers who have had years to refine the craft of dance and acting, gather them under prominent ballet figure and brilliant storyteller Artistic Director Ben Stevenson, throw in a large budget for sets, costumes, and effects, and there you’ll find a tried-and-true recipe for a magical holiday show.
The ballet takes us back to 19th century Germany where guests eagerly arrive at the Stahlbaum home for a magnificent Christmas party. Gifts and merriment abound, but the most delightful present is a nutcracker, bestowed unto Clara Stahlbaum (Charis Alimanova) by her godfather Herr Drosselmeyer (Carl Coomer).
Several simply click with the party scene. Most of them are due to the above reasons for the ballet’s success, but a crucial element that can make or break a party scene is the individual acting abilities of the performers. If the dancers’ energies fail to make it across the auditorium, the stage looks like a fuzzy mass of bodies moving, regardless of the staging.
Although Stevenson includes a multitude of little vignettes to convey the gleeful chaos of a party, each group of performers delivers the narrative of the moment with a compelling force that invites the attention of the audience to leisurely meander among the partygoers, as if each patron was a guest as well.
Nicole Von Enck and Joamanuel Velazquez delightfully portray the Columbine and Harlequin dolls, respectively, and draw plenty of laughs as the children manipulate them.
After the guests have departed and everyone falls asleep, Clara finds herself among giant mice scurrying about, doing the bidding of the Rat King (Alexander Kotelenets). Fortunately, her nutcracker doll comes to life (Drake Humphreys) and, with her help, defeats the Rat King. A fantastic journey through the Land of Snow culminates with a visit to the Kingdom of Sweets where guests from around the world entertain her.
Jiyan Dai and Alexandra Farber make a stellar snow king and queen, but it’s not because of their exquisite technical execution. The glitz and glamour of the costumes and sets prove no match for the stunning smiles and explosive performance quality the two exhibit. Fluttering snowflakes clad in Romantic tutus keep the energy up with brilliant faces and a clean, precise sequence. It even makes the flickering jazz hands a little less out of place.
The second act keeps up with the magic of the first, with a vivid display of diverse dances.
The three couples of the Spanish variation find the sweet spot between meticulous timing and sumptuous delivery, while Humphreys and Velazquez defy gravity with a superbly controlled Chinese martial arts duet—complete with a real sword, no less.
Alexander Kotelenets and Katelyn Clenaghan once again garner the most applause with their luscious Arabian duet, complete with a flying carpet and feats of flexibility.
The tone mellows out with a quaint Mirliton pas de trois, but the level of excellence remains unchanged. Marlen Alimanov delicately partners Allisyn Hsieh Caro and Amanda Fairweather, yet demonstrates his prowess with a solid grand allegro.
Madame Bonbonaire (Alex Danna) corrals an astonishingly well-rehearsed and confident children’s cast, then David Schrenk explodes on the stage as the Russian Gopak. The amount of air time he gets in his jumps would make any NBA player envious, yet that doesn’t stop him from delivering them with a beaming smile worthy of a Vegas stage.
A beautiful, sweeping “Waltz of the Flowers” boasts another clean ensemble with effortless pirouettes, and the duet between Paige Nyman and Paul Adams is simply lovely.
Leticia Oliveira and Andre Silva maneuver through the pinnacle grand pas de deux as if it were a second skin, and one can so easily get caught up in their dancing that the ending comes too soon.
As fantastic as the performers are, though, the best moment comes from the wide-eyed children in the audience during intermission, still reveling in the wonderment. Someone must have sprinkled extra fairy dust on opening night, because it was the best overall performance of a full-length ballet I’ve seen from the company.
Music is recorded, as expected, and honestly, I’m willing to give them a pass on that at the moment. In the past few years, the company has demonstrated its commitment to add more live music (even during the drama of a musician’s strike), but with a show run that includes 25 performances, building up to the dream of a live orchestra will take time.
One day, my friends, one day.
» The Nutcracker continues in Dallas through Dec. 4, and then moves to Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, Dec. 9-24