Dallas — Avant Chamber Ballet has come a long way since its premiere in 2012. Along with continuing their staunch commitment to live music, they’ve grown more cohesive as a dancing ensemble, attracted higher caliber talent, received prestigious grants, moved into larger performance spaces, upgraded their costumes, and increased the size and scope of their musical talent.
Another unique distinction they’ve held as a ballet company is alternative Christmas programming, with Nutcracker: Short and Suite, A Ballet Christmas Carol, and their unique collaboration last year with Verdigris Ensemble for Little Match Girl Passion.
That all changed this year, as they presented Paul Mejia’s The Nutcracker at Moody Performance Hall, which ran December 20-22. As artistic director Katie Puder boasted from the stage, it’s a moment of “firsts.” That weekend saw ACB’s first full-length Nutcracker (as opposed to their usual Short and Suite offering), the first-ever Nutcracker at the Moody, and the first one to offer live music in the arts district (at least in recent memory).
While all of those distinctions are commendable, some questions arise. First, why follow the crowd now? Maybe they felt the pull towards tradition or the need to fill more seats, as Saturday night’s packed house might suggest. So, how will the company distinguish itself in the sea of sugar plums? For ACB, live music (conducted by Brad Cawyer) is a definite draw, and an established, recognizable choreographer certainly bolstered the hype. Mejia’s time with George Balanchine was definitely felt throughout, most of all in the structure (more on that later).
Equally important, though, how will they deliver the aesthetic and how will they would fare with Mejia’s choreography? After seeing the performance, the short answer, is that it’s complicated. Many components were quite excellent, while others were confusing or dull.
The basic storyline stayed traditional. Clara Stahlbaum (Jordan Hetherly) and her family host a Christmas party, and the mysterious Drosselmeyer (Eugene Barnes III) brought magic gifts and a nutcracker doll. Later that night, the doll comes to life to battle the Rat King (Yevgeni Anfinogenov) with their respective armies. The nutcracker is victorious with Clara’s help, and he sweeps her away to magical lands where she’s entertained with various dances.
For the party scene, strategically placed draperies closed the stage in a bit, since they had a smaller party cast. While less people on stage certainly minimized the risk for chaos, there wasn’t enough action to keep up the excitement of a party. Luckily, stellar performances by Hetherly and Barnes made up for it. Madelaine Boyce, Towa Shinagawa, and Melissa Meng danced superbly as the magic life-like dolls, although the choice to make a joke about the ballerina dolls’ exposed backsides was disappointing.
The subsequent battle had about the same outcome as the party — disappointing moments alongside the remarkable. The mouse and solider armies seemed to rarely fight and instead just ran around the stage, a moment which seemed to last forever before the Rat King arrived much later than expected. The Nutcracker doll leaped across the stage with gusto, and he maneuvered through an exciting, realistic fight with the Rat King, rather than a measly clanking of swords. We discovered later that the doll is danced by Barnes, but it’s unclear whether it was Drosselmeyer turning into the doll or just Barnes dancing a separate role, as it’s not credited in the program or mentioned in the synopsis.
Mejia’s Balanchine roots showed through with the transformation into the snow scene. Rather than having the Snow King and Queen dance during the sweeping music, Clara’s journey with Drosselmeyer is the focus, and the regal pair never appeared. Even without the pas de deux, the scene carried so much potential for further interaction and magic, but it never materialized. The Snowflakes that followed had a messy start but eventually found their footing, especially with a stunning piqué turn sequence.
Since Act II’s strength typically lies in the caliber of the divertissement dancers, this was obviously a place where ACB excelled in execution. Visuals and narrative, however, were confusing. It’s supposed to be the Land of Sweets (as listed in the program), but instead the scenery took the viewer underneath the tree, with massive ornaments and tree branches. The synopsis mentioned the Nutcracker prince as a living boy telling a story (as is typical), but no character existed in the cast list or on stage.
Another Balanchine signature that defied conventional grand pas de deux structure (and that of most productions) was the Sugar Plum Fairy (Juliann McAloon) dancing her variation at the beginning of Act II and skipping the male variation later in the ballet.
Overall, Act II brought joyous dancing. McAloon was sweetly exquisite, and Ronnie Underwood as her Cavalier partnered her beautifully. They truly made a marvelous pair for the iconic roles.
Kaylee Skelton delivered a sultry Arabian variation, and Flora McLeod and Ciaran Barlow whisked through the sprightly Chinese segment with ease. Pleasing choreography for the “Waltz of the Flowers” ensemble blended seamlessly with Meng’s smashing performance and technical execution as the Dew Drop Fairy. A well-rehearsed children’s cast charmed with their Candy Cane variation (in lieu of the Russian) and Polichinelle section.
The orchestra performed beautifully, throughout, although the piano was a little overpowering in Act I. With such an emphasis on live music, however, it was puzzling that the musicians were not credited in the program.
Avant Chamber Ballet certainly has the core talent to produce a stellar Nutcracker. Since they have a strong foundation already, a little refinement in various production and narrative elements will go a long way to improve future productions.