Ballet Frontier of Texas opened up The Nutcracker season in Fort Worth with their rendition at the Will Rogers Memorial Auditorium this weekend.
A few notable changes differentiate this production from the traditional, but for the most part, it stays true to the narrative. The Stahlbaums and their children Clara (Maria Howard) and Fritz (Andrew Coffey) host their annual Christmas party complete with the mysterious Drosselmeyer and his array of magical gifts, including a nutcracker for Clara. After the party, her beloved doll comes to life to protect her from the onslaught of mice. His soldiers battle it out first, and in an unconventional narrative development, Fritz joins the action. As usual, the Nutcracker and Mouse King go head-to-head, and with a swift move of Clara’s slipper the Mouse King is defeated; the fate of the Nutcracker is unclear.
Clara and Fritz wander into a winter wonderland (sans Nutcracker Prince) where they are greeted by the Snow King (Chung-Lin Tseng) and Queen (Bianca Wugofski). After a delightful dance, the children are ushered into the Kingdom of Sweets where the Sugar Plum Fairy (Marina Goshko) and her Cavalier (Andrey Prikhodko) arrange for an international feast of entertainment.
The ballet improves as the story progresses, but the party scene of Act One is rather disappointing. The physical acting from the adults is weak, and we get a sense that they’re just going through the motions rather than trying to capture the audience with their storytelling. It’s somewhat forgivable, as it seems the parents of the cast members fulfill many of the adult roles, but strong characters need to bring order to an otherwise chaotic party scene. With the exception of Crystal Taylor (as Clara’s mother), it just didn’t happen.
Tseng livens things up a little with the battle. The mice don mismatched, raggedy outfits to enhance their mischievous characters. Their choreography goes beyond the usual scare-and-run fare by adding in some humor and developing their personalities even more.
The battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King offers more dreariness than the party scene. Understandably, a Chuck Norris-style face-off is out of the question due to the large headpieces, but we could have had a little more than a stiff-walked charge followed by an anti-climactic bump of swords. The use of floor patterns for the mice and soldiers, however, redeems the scene a bit by creating an intriguing visual effect.
Fortunately, the bad news is pretty much over and it only goes uphill from here. The snow scene brings a delightful surprise. Snow choreography tends to be difficult due to the music arrangement, and for the most part these young ladies handle it quite well. Precision and timing continue to be an issue, of course, but the dancers look much more animated and confident than when we last saw them in June. Wugofski is a charming addition to the company.
While Act One was choreographed by Tseng, he modeled Act Two from the choreography of the late Roy Tobias. With the casting and arrangements of this section, Ballet Frontier strongly adheres to its mission statement by focusing on its younger dancers and allowing as much stage time as possible for them. While this makes for a crowded space at times, the lead dancers mostly maintain their positions as the focal points.
Goshko and Prikhodko dazzle yet again in the grand pas de deux (which, interestingly, is broken up and not performed in the traditional order). Caitlin Shaw shows a greater command of the stage in the Spanish variation. Crystal Taylor and Paul Adams’ Arabian duet contains less partnering choreography than usual and favors adding the attendants in with the movements, although they don’t look as comfortable with the more fluid style. Precision issues plague the Chinese variation more than others, but Blair Blumentritt, Megan Lin and Taylor Sek exhibit a lovely playfulness.
The Russian sequence takes a different turn. While Shannon Beacham and Kayleen Gentry wonderfully dance an upbeat duet worthy of the swelling music, the traditional use of male performers (or females dressed as males) performing a breath-takingly long string of jumps, toe-touches and turns fits the score better.
The next piece of music “Dance of the Reed Flutes” is interpreted in a variety of ways; Ballet Frontier employs the pastoral theme with a shepherdess (Isa Bella Herreros), her sheep and a wolf. Herreros shows much growth in her performance quality.
The next piece of music is also up for interpretation, but it always involves a mirthful innocence. Clara and Fritz join the Bon-Bons for their dance; Howard and Coffey explode with a brilliant mix of technical mastery and energy. “Waltz of the Flowers” displays Wugofski’s talent once more as the Dewdrop, but the flower choreography lacks the sweeping technicality.
Overall, a few disappointments but many pleasant surprises. It’s the latter which will bring audiences back for more.
◊ Read Cheryl Callon's essay about her history with The Nutcracker here.