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Boston Ballet's 'Nutcracker' a Feast for the Eyes

THE NUTCRACKER presented by Boston Ballet The Wang Center through Jan. 4


Christmas in Boston isn't complete without Boston Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker. This classic holiday fairy tale has delighted audiences here for over 30 years, and the tradition continues through Jan. 4 at the Wang Center this year.

Based on E.T.A. Hoffman's 1816 story "Der Nussknacker und der Mausekonig" (The Nutcracker and the Mouse king), the ballet is divided in two acts. The first act enters on a Christmas party at the home of the Silberhaus family, where the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeyer presents his god-daughter, little Clara Silberhaus, the very special gift of a nutcracker. Later that night, when everyone else is asleep, Clara sneaks to the drawing room to find the nutcracker and falls asleep briefly, only to wake to find herself surrounded by a horde of enormous mice. As the room and everything in it (except Clara) grows to a monstrous size, the nutcracker comes to life and leads the toy soldiers into battle against the mice. With a little help from Clara, he defeats the mouse king and is transformed by Drosselmeyer into a handsome prince. After a lovely interlude in a snowy forest, Clara and her nutcracker travel in a magic balloon to the Kingdom of Sweets, where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier and regaled by an array of exotic divertissements, ending with a beautiful pas de deux by their hosts.

In many ways, the real standout of this production of The Nutcracker--apart from Tchaikovsky's playful, still-fresh score--is the lavish staging. The oversized sets and the use of greater stage depth contribute greatly to the feeling of enchantment, making even the Nutcrackered-out spectator feel like a wide-eyed child all over again. The second-act divertissments are ingeniously presented within the frame of a large-scale model of Drosselmeyer's toy theater from Act One, and each act has its own specific backdrop--pretty, if stereotypical (e.g., golden pagodas for the Chinese/tea dance, onion-domed places for the Russian), like the music and costumes--making each seem like a miniature ballet in itself.

But even more visually breathtaking than the divertissements are the truly magical snow scene and the battle scene in the first act, when the Christmas tree grows to a height of 40 feet, and the furniture grows in proportion, reducing Clara to the real-life perspective of a mouse. The battle scene also throws in plenty of laugh-provoking props, including pieces of cheese and giant forks and knives wielded by very hungry mice, and ups the kiddie appeal even more with children dressed not only as adorable dolls and toy soldiers but even as baby mice, smiling and marching with remarkable poise amidst all the flying missiles.

In fact, it's the smiling faces of the children that create the magic in Act One, as little girls clutch their Christmas dolls and mischievous boys pound on their drums and blow their horns, and Clara dances a pretty pas de deux with her godfather. The only element that detracts from the charm of the party scene is the extraneous and annoying presence of Drosselemeyer's nephew, who imitates his uncle's every move and gesture, down to the eyepatch. The magic, after all, is between Clara and Drosselmeyer; the nephew only gets in the way--especially at the end of the party, when Clara falls asleep holding the nutcracker, and the nephew takes it from her, ruining our sense of the bond between the girl and her godfather. Thankfully, the nephew doesn't return for the rest of the ballet.

Roger Cunningham danced the Nutcracker on opening night, and his style and storytelling gestures were well suited to the role. In the beautifully staged snow scene, Larissa Ponamarenko was absolute perfection as the Snow Queen: the slenderness of her arms and legs captured the delicate, precise angles of a snowflake in midair, while her flawless technique and feather-light jumps evoked the quality of snow melting as it hits the ground. Victor Plotnikov, as the Snow King, was a worthy partner, strong both technically and artistically, while the choreography of the snowflakes created the impression of swirling, wind-blown snow as the dancers turned and glided, leaving patterns in the snow onstage.

While the first act is filled with story telling and action, the second act is where the serious dancing actually takes place. The Spanish (chocolate) dance is all high kicks and jumps, followed by the slow, sensual Arabian (coffee), which requires great flexibility and extension on the part of the female dancer. Next comes the Chinese (tea), with two lead dancers accompanied by eight little girls with parasols; then a Marzipan shepherd and shepherdess, with four adorable little girls as sheep. The Russian variation is always the most exciting, as the five men jump, stomp and cheer in fine style; the lead Russian on opening night, Christopher Buzdinski, wowed with his amazing jumps and consecutive flying splits. Mother Ginger and the eight Polichinelles under her skirt are another favorite, as the four boys and four girls pair off into kissing couples and dance their way into the audience's hearts.

The Waltz of the Flowers was well choreographed, and though the too-familiar music may grate on the nerves in crowded shopping malls, here it retains some of its magic when accompanied by dancers gracefully simulating the opening and closing of flower petals. In the final pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, Jennifer Gelfand and Robert Wallace were both excellent. Gelfand's solid technique, effortless jumps and unmatched turns made her variation a joy to watch, reaching a high point when she completed four and five rotations after her fouette turns--a feat seldom seen on stage. Wallace was a refined and dignified Cavalier, well matched to Gelfand in technique and artistry.

All in all, Boston Ballet's production meets expectations as a colorful and appealing version of the holiday classic. Solid dancing, lively storytelling and gorgeous staging make it a spectacle worth watching.

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