From the glistening snowscapes to the suddenly growing Christmas tree, you can see every cent of the $1.5 million that Alberta Ballet has poured into its opulent new production of The Nutcracker.
One of the main reasons people go to the seasonal classic—and tote their kids along—is to be transported to a magical world far removed from the mind-numbing megamall march at this time of year. And the new production design by Zack Brown conjures that world like few other Nutcrackers that have ever come to Vancouver.
The ballet opens, nontraditionally, with an outdoor scene, a lush three-dimensional-looking rendering of a turn-of-the-last-century Russian street, complete with glowing lamps and a multidomed palace glistening in the distance. The second act finds a palace courtyard gilded out like a giant Fabergé egg, as well as an entrance by the Snow Tsarina that is as icily beautiful as anything C.?S. Lewis could have imagined—a gigantic white sled, two arctic wolves, and dancers with sparkling snowflakes floating down onto them. And just wait till you see Klara and the soldiers “shrink” before your eyes as the tannenbaum and the toy czarist castle that sits beneath it stretch upward in a marvel of stagecraft.
It’s hardly a surprise to find that the dance itself occasionally seems secondary amid the sugarplum-rich visuals. Alberta Ballet choreographer Edmund Stripe has stuck mostly to traditional choreography, but he’s put some fun flourishes on this version: there’s a cute pantomime with a doll and a nutcracker, and a pleasing visit by scrambling mice in the first act, as well as swirling ribbons for the Chinese dancers and an intriguingly open-ended final scene in the second.
But what about the ballet itself? The first act doesn’t have a lot of showstopping dance—in fact, the party scene drags a bit—so it’s in the second act that we get to see this corps really strut its stuff. Among the highlights is Tara Williamson’s sinewy work in the exotic trio for the Arabian Dance, in which she’s hoisted in seemingly jointless splits by her two Aladdins. Sugar Plum Fairy Hayna Gutierrez and her cavalier, Kelley McKinlay, also drew loud applause. She whirls through an endless series of dizzying spins and yet shows the same delicate restraint with her battements that the live Vancouver Symphony Orchestra musicians displayed all night. Meanwhile, the athletic and charismatic McKinlay gets airborne with some killer jumps and gravity-defying turns.
As for diminutive stars Asaka Homma as the girl Klara and Yukichi Hattori as her Karl, they have just the right youthful energy and effortless technique to carry the show along. And the corps work in the Flower and Sugarplum scenes is serenely beautiful, aided by designer Brown’s gauzily exquisite tutus.
An added bonus in this production are the appearances by local child dancers in some intricately choreographed scenes. It’s a wonder they were able to overcome their awe at being surrounded by all this eye candy, not to mention its gorgeous musical equivalent.