Sporting a velvet cape and a mysterious aura, Herr Drosselmeier knows how to cast a spell. With a small wooden doll—one meant to crack nuts, no less—he transports a little girl through a battle against rats and into a dreamland of sweets and foreign delights. This is the journey of Drosselmeier’s goddaughter, Clara Silberhaus, in the most widely beloved of all classical ballets: “The Nutcracker.”
Boston Ballet Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen’s choreography of “The Nutcracker” is particularly lavish. Last Saturday’s performance at the Boston Opera House was presented like an elaborately wrapped holiday gift. With breathtaking set changes, elaborate costumes, and a stream of light-hearted physical jokes, Nissinen managed to create a “Nutcracker” fit for a virtuosic company that still catered to his youngest viewers.
The first act of Nissinen’s “Nutcracker” boasted wonderful attention to detail: in the opening scene, pedestrians stopped underneath a glowing streetlamp by a street vendor’s brightly painted food cart to taste hot treats. At the Silberhaus holiday party, Clara (Rachel Harrison) and her friends wore finely embroidered dresses in blues and teals that matched the upholstery of the cavernous parlor. Even the party’s minor characters were animated: the party’s oldest and grumpiest couple (Altan Dugaraa and Sylvia Deaton) quarrelled in a corner before springing into a wildly entertaining polka. Drosselmeier captivated Clara and her friends with his party tricks by making his handkerchief levitate across the stage, and—in a feat of illusion—making Clara’s younger brother Fritz disappear and reappear on the other end of the room with the flick of a cloth.
However, Drosselmeier’s most impressive marvels were his dolls. The “Harlequin” (Jeffrey Cirio) and “Columbine” (Adiarys Almeida)—named after the eloping Italian lovers first depicted in 17th-century comic pantomimes—managed technically breathtaking choreography with the stiff, robotic movements of mechanical toys. But the greatest crowd-pleaser of the party scene was undoubtedly “Bear” (Lawrence Rhines), who performed a challenging Russian folk dance in an enormous fuzzy full-body bear suit, complete with red ruff. With a playful roll on the stage floor and a kiss to the audience, Bear lumbered off stage to the audible groans of the youngest theatergoers.
It was only after the holiday party was over and young Clara snuck into the parlor to see her Nutcracker gift that Drosselmeier began to draw her into his dream world. Perched atop the enormous grandfather clock, Drosselmeier directed the Christmas tree to grow twice its size, and called for his creations to return onstage. His dolls no longer danced in mechanical jolts, but rather with balletic articulation. As the parlor became more and more fantastical, young costumed mice began to appear on the stage to herald the classic battle scene between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
Surprisingly, Nissinen’s “Nutcracker” battle scene did not put up much of a fight. Perhaps in an effort not to frighten young viewers, the battle was static. It failed to live up to the mystical aura that Drosselmeier had created in the parlor moments before. The mice—who threw cheese and picked up a “fallen comrade” in a stretcher—seemed more goofy than menacing. The now lifesize Nutcracker (Lasha Khozashvili) and military commander grouped his young toy soldiers centerstage but led them nowhere. Mice and soldiers clustered around the stage, dancing around but not with—or against—each other. Their lack of contact made Clara’s fear seem artificial and Nutcracker Khozashvili’s mournful death and resurrection as a handsome “Cavalier” unconvincing.
While the first act of “The Nutcracker” was primarily plot-driven, the second act showcased Boston Ballet’s talent as Nissinen’s dancers welcomed Clara to the glittering Kingdom of Sweets. As one of the few productions in which the ballet school’s youngest students dance alongside the company’s most renowned principals, the second act is special for Boston Ballet’s repertoire. In the “Chinese” dance, Dalay Parrondo and Irlan Silva’s energetic pas de deux—or dance for two—was framed by children clothed in red silk who twirled brightly colored parasols in perfect time. In the “Pastorale” dance, it was difficult to decide who was more charming, the three delicate professionals or the five tiny children dressed as lambs—four white and a mischievous black one who always danced out of time. Even Clara joined her fellow students; she danced with Drosselmeier in the “Pastorale” with all of the vivacity and charm of a girl under 10 but the technique of a dancer far older.
The other professionals held their own. In “Arabian,” Rie Ichikawa and Jaime Diaz captivated in a dark, sultry duet with seamless partnering, while the men of the “Russian” dance (Bo Busby, Boyko Dossev, and Duncan Lyle) thrilled as they turned and leapt in flawless synchrony. Though Whitney Jensen and Khozashvili performed a respectable pas de deux as Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, it was Misa Kuranaga—the Dew Drop in the “Waltz of the Flowers”—who captivated the most. With balances and leaps suspended just a moment longer than anticipated, and unparalleled carriage of her arms and head, Kuranaga moved while others only entertained.
But perhaps the “entertainment” factor—the unabashed holiday cheer of it all—should not be downplayed. Nissinen’s choreography can satisfy a first-time ballet-goer, young or old, and in that respect, the wish for something more artistically engaging lingers only for a brief moment.