Two things stand out after watching Ballet West in repeated performances of "The Nutcracker": first, it's a joyous occasion, and second, there are no "second casts."
One may seem to be stating the obvious by saying it's a joyous occasion, for "Nutcracker" has long been part and parcel of Christmas joy in Utah. But there's an extra measure of happy relaxation apparent in this year's edition, which begins with so simple and self-evident an assist as smiling faces.No more grim-faced court ladies, petrified-looking pages or wound-up party-goers; no pas de deux couple whose anxiety or uncertainty show on their faces, but rather a totally confident, unselfconscious, audience-wooing event, whose dancers gallantly bounce, bound and float over the top of their challenges.
In effect, returning to the Christensen tradition means more than restoring his steps and routines (which are, incidentally, among the best in the business). It means tapping into the exuberant spirit that brought Ballet West to full flower in the Mountain West, under Christensen's founding and nurturing hand. He has never lost his touch and gives a magical, truthful show, with dancers who communicate on the human level.
And no matter what other eclectic strands of technical prowess, cosmopolitan sophistication and subtlety it adds while working out its destiny, Ballet West should never forget its roots, which tap into a wonderful dancing pioneer tradition. That's the Christensen strand - a tough, resilient, open, western strain that is the company's most precious distinction.
As for no "second casts," at no time in memory has Ballet West looked so strong throughout, with layers of expert dancers at the top. Six separate couples alternate in the major pas de deux of the ballet - the Snow and Sugar Plum, and one feels sure that those performing the lesser demands of Arabian and Waltz of Flowers duos, doll and other incidental solos, could easily step up. Indeed, the talent is so abundant that one does not envy John Hart his balancing act, trying to keep the "arrived" dancers happy while bringing the promising comers along.
Following opening night's Buson-Angelini in the Sugar Plum pas de deux, Wendy Fiedeldey and Robert Arbogast, one of the company's mature partnerships, bring out the best in each other - she with elongated, fluid grace, he with growing strength and pointed projection. Rhonda Lee and Bruce Caldwell, well accustomed to the ins and outs of this pas, each add their own sparkle.
Pamela Robinson joins new arrival Charles Flachs to create a finely poised and technically expert duo. Jane Wood, whose strength is veiled by delicacy, works well with Jiang Qi in his first major partnering assignment - a challenge for one trained in the soloistic Chinese tradition, but Qi makes a good start toward stretching to its demands, with spectacular solo turns.
No less exciting is the physically ideal partnership of Raymond Van Mason and Lisa Lockerd, who is blossoming into a long-stemmed beauty with the cleanest and purest of lines. With Van Mason's great physical strength, effortless lifts and commanding yet cultivated presence, their Snow is a shimmering, bravura act, their Waltz of the Flowers equally clean and graceful.
Honorable mention in five great casts: Qi as an acrobatic Chinese and a spectacular lead Russian; Peter Christie in a dozen parts, showing himself as one of the companies most versatile partners and pantomimists; Isabelle Creste and Mark Cisler as a radiant Flowers couple; Erin Leedom everywhere as a graceful, pretty presence - as mechanical doll, Merliton, in Flowers pas with Joseph Woelfel as her forceful yet graceful partner.
Steven Green transcends a papier mache face to give fussy personality to Mother Buffoon - a lady dripping with possibilities for those inventive enough to find them. James Dlugokinsky, Jeffrey Rogers, and Miguel Garcia are agile, tireless Chinese and/or bravura Russians, exotic Arabians and handsome Nutcracker princes.
Nor must one fail to applaud the outstanding support from Terence Kern and his charges in the pit, who richly fill out the lilting Tchaikovsky score. A few seats remain, though a sellout is reported for some performances.