Since the days following Thanksgiving are geared towards shopping—with names like Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday—why not escape the madness, the lines, and maybe even the violence surrounding electronic purchases by watching something happy? It's Nutcracker season again and DFW always has its fair share (and then some) of the often imitated and very much duplicated holiday classic. This weekend Texas Ballet Theater opened their Dallas run of The Nutcracker at the Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center. (It runs another weekend and then moves to Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall Dec. 9-24.)
This is a pretty standard Nutcracker. Clara and her family host a Christmas party with attendees of all ages. Slight chaos and much comedy ensue with the emphasis being Drosselmeyer and his gift of the Nutcracker to Clara, which only gets broken by a jealous brother. Later that night when everyone is in bed, the Nutcracker and the Rat King duke it out flanked by soldiers and mice, respectively. The Nutcracker wins and takes Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets where themed dancers entertain her.
The first part of Act I is lively and fun with some pleasant surprises. The overture in this version is more entertaining than most, because Stevenson provides more differentiation of character in the party guests. The most surprising aspect, however, is Fritz Stahlbaum (Drake Humphreys), who impresses the audience with some pretty technical dancing not normally seen in that character. The stage does tend to get crowded given the frenzied nature of the party scene, but the audience always has a focal point throughout that segment. The only downsides to this part are the wind-up toys and the parents' dance. The toys always dance at the same time, and when they aren't partnering, it's difficult to split the attention between the two dancers. The parents' dance is a tad on the weak side, choreographically.
Next, the battle under the Christmas tree is where everything is supposed to be larger than life. Since TBT didn't utilize the children's cast for the mice and soldiers (like many companies do), the mice really are big. The costumes are a little overbearing, especially the incredibly long tails. The soldiers provide a nice strength to this part, although when the two groups fight, it downplays the main fight between the Rat King and the Nutcracker.
The snow scene is always a beautiful ending to the act, and Leticia Oliveira as the Snow Queen sweeps and spins around the stage like a thing of beauty. Lucas Priolo as the Nutcracker Prince gets a little upstaged by Oliveira, but performs wonderfully, nonetheless. The Romantic-style tutus of the snowflakes enhance their delicate and animated movements even more.
Act II continues the magic, but many of the divertissements from Act II tend to be hit or miss. The Spanish variation, while colorful and energetic, slightly lacks that last bit of zing because the ladies are not on pointe. The Arabian variation, typically an audience favorite regardless of the performing company, is the most disappointing. While this is a family-friendly show, the Arabian duet always has a mystique about it because it's has more sensuality rather than the usual peppiness of the other variations. Not much difference existed between the performance quality of the Arabian duet and the others. The Chinese martial arts duo is strong, but still not exciting as the music makes it out to be.
Luckily, the divertissements improve. Alexander Kotelenets receives applause even before he is finished with the Russian variation for his pike jumps, toe touches and other amazing feats typical of a Russian folk dance. The Waltz of the Flowers is striking with a few exceptions. Betsy McBride performs her role as lead flower with precision, but that quality makes her look a little stiff at times and her facial expression doesn't always look genuine. Carl Coomer as her cavalier does a wonderful job with the lifts, making her look like she's really floating.
The highlight of the ballet, the grand pas de deux, is absolutely stunning. Carolyn Judson as the Sugar Plum Fairy shows great sensitivity to the music with her delicate yet exact footwork in the female solo, and Lucas Priolo performs his usually magnificent yet seemingly weightless jumps with gusto. Together, they create a spell-binding effect with their adagio, which is danced with such control and sustainment that it looks like they're in slow motion at times.
TBT's version of the holiday classic is often said to be the best in DFW, and it many respects that's true. The company dancers are exceptionally good performers and technicians, and Stevenson's choreography provides humor in the right places and dazzles the audience throughout. While the show is not a perfect 10, it's definitely worth the time and money to make it a part of your holiday tradition.
◊ You can see our complete list of area Nutcracker performances by typing Nutcracker in the keyword box in the "Find a Performance" bar at the top of the page. Then click the search button all the way to the right of that bar (or just press enter).