Few things summon the seasonal magic as brilliantly as Ballet West’s “Nutcracker.” Friday’s opening night promised another December filled with crisp, animated performances and slews of enchanted patrons filing in and out of the Capitol Theatre.
What is most impressive is how this ballet satisfies every palate. Certainly the proud parents of young performers and the darling little dreamers are more easily impressed. Yet the ballet sophisticates turn out with equal affection, drawn to it like an annual turkey dinner at grandma's. The choreography may not be groundbreaking, but it’s still breathtaking, not to mention nostalgic and nearly sacrosanct in the community.
The treasured Tchaikovsky score and delightful libretto are both synonymous with the holidays and might well be enough to satisfy eager Christmastide audiences. Yet the dance takes it to a higher level, and the trimmings make it irresistible.
For starters, the lavish costumes are second to none in both elegance and impact. Splendid details, such as velvety capes with silk linings and feather-light tutus of snow-sprayed tulle, are fine-tuned and built upon year after year.
The special effects — big and small — amuse and delight. The growing Christmas tree widens eyes, the falling snow and rolling fog seem to bring a bona fide chill to the air, puffs of smoke and exploding cannons produce starts and thrills.
The stunning sets include the large Edwardian-era Stahlbaum home that would make Dickens proud: carolers on the step, frosted pane-glass windows, and holly wreaths, candlelight and evergreen sprigs fill every nook. The snow scene is a glittering array of bare trees against a dusky pink sky and sparkling white drifts. The land of the Sugar Plum Fairy is a marble palace veiled in gold light — not the candy land in so many other productions — but its simplicity has elegance.
Finally, and most importantly, the dancers, both the pros and dozens of local children, were nearly flawless. Every year around Labor Day while the rest of Salt Lake is riding bikes, hosting barbecues and getting in a last swim at the pool, Ballet West is starting the "Nutcracker" process by auditioning hundreds of children for the coveted youth roles. The rehearsals begin almost immediately after selection, resulting in polished and animated dancing by December.
Ann Bigelow, now dancing Clara (first cast) for her second year, has a grace beyond her years, yet her youthful exuberance still shines.
Dancers Katherine Lawrence and Tom Mattingly as the Sugar Plum couple were mesmerizing, as were Christopher Ruud and Beckanne Sisk as the lead couple in Waltz of the Flowers.
Soloists Sayaka Ohtaki and Beau Pearson are both realizing their potential this season — Ohtaki’s delicacy is finding its match in her rising command and strength, and Pearson’s expression has budded into something truly emotional.
Also of note was soloist Allison DeBona as the Arabian female lead, although her partner, Christopher Anderson, seemed a little off his game. Ronald Tilton suited up for the silly Mother Buffoon with lackluster theatricality. He went for coy when peevish and prissy seem to bring about the best response.
The much-anticipated new Chinese variation was visually exciting, elevating it to almost Russian-dance status for little boys in the audience who perk up at the sight of a warrior with a dragon (like they do when they see those high-jumping Russian stunts).
I’d hoped for more of a tussle between the dragon puppet and the warrior — it felt a little too static and careful — and I missed some of the jaw-dropping spins and leaps of the old choreography. However, a series of turns in which the warrior (danced by Tyler Gum) catapults himself around with his staff was exciting, as was a well-executed tumbling stunt. I look forward to a more dramatic headpiece and costume to match the trademark Peking-opera-style makeup of the warrior. Apparently it’s in the cards but was not yet realized this year.
One of the brightest spots of the night was the corps de ballet as the snowflakes. Sometimes a thankless task, a corps dancer works tirelessly to match those in her periphery. Every leg lifts to the same degree and at the same moment, every head tilts at the same angle, every arm moves in space at the same arc. It can be daunting and yet it rarely if ever sparks a noticing applause from the audience. But today’s companies are often judged by the strength of their corps.
If that’s the case, then it’s no wonder Ballet West ranks highly on the national scene.
But no matter why people come to see the "Nutcracker" — company reputation, nostalgia, grandchildren, Christmas spirit or its strong corps de ballet — there’s no wrong reason. Just dozens of right ones.
Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker,” Dec. 6-24 and “Nutty Nutcracker” Dec 30.
Tickets are still available by calling (801) 355-ARTS or at www.arttix.org.