"THE NUTCRACKER," through Dec. 29, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South (801-355-ARTS or www.balletwest.org); running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes (one intermission)
SALT LAKE CITY — In performing the nation’s original and longest running “Nutcracker,” Ballet West has found the sweet spot between high-style and old-school, innovative and nostalgic and elaborate and seemingly effortless. The production's simple charms drew Friday night's opening night crowd into an old-timey realm, while its artful, dazzling touches and flawless technique kept it from feeling antiquated.
Thanks to last year's updated costumes and sets, Ballet West's "Nutcracker" is especially gorgeous. From soft flakes of snow floating onto the stage during Act I’s winter scene to a puppet show in the foreground during Act II, there are dozens upon dozens of wonders happening all about the stage at any given time.
Young Kyra Stafford as Clara took in those wonders with childlike awe, although her movements were mature and crystalline. Cannon Fox as her naughty older brother, Fritz, showcased a dramatic flair and kept things comical during the party scene.
Beau Pearson returned as Dr. Drosselmeyer with his signature panache, aiming for eccentric and fun-loving over dark and sinister. Besides being the beloved toymaker, he also spent the party trying (unsuccessfully) to steal a dance during the couples waltz or cast secret spells on the partygoers.
During the fight scene, in which Clara’s beloved Nutcracker and his toy soldiers face the wicked Mouse King and his whiskered entourage, audiences were treated to a growing Christmas tree, cannon fire, swordplay and, best of all, the silly antics of the mice. At one point, they could be seen “flossing” and “dabbing” (if you aren’t familiar with those dance moves, ask any teenaged boy). I can recall decades of pop culture steps-de-jour making their way onto “The Nutcracker” stage by way of the mice — from the “Roger Rabbit” to the MC Hammer-dance to the Macarena. (One has to wonder if the shimmy and the twist or perhaps some disco moves made appearances during its very earliest years).
Emily Adams and Adrian Fry were regal as the Snow Queen and King. Adams is a statuesque, graceful dancer, embodying the regal role in every way. Fry’s movements are forever impassioned, fluid and infused with a sense of ease that made us forget he was lifting another human being over his head or pitching her high into the air. The corps’ exacting lines and patterns suggested a snowflake’s intricacies, and their shimmering blue gowns and pom-pom branches added beautiful wintry touches.
Act II swept in like a breath of fresh air and a sudden change of season. The land of the Sugar Plum fairy was bright, exotic and seemingly fragrant with spring, a contrast from the Stahlbaum family's dark Edwardian ballroom and winter’s nights.
The Divertissement, which makes up the bulk of the second act, was fast-paced and lively, filled with magic tricks, humor and grace during an array of “exotic” variations. Flash-footed monkeys served bountiful platters to Clara and her prince while Spanish dancers (led by Hadriel Diniz) leapt into their variation as if spring-loaded. Diniz took the role to a new level with the height of his jaw-dropping jumps and leaps.
Katlyn Addison inspired in the Arabian Dance — her agility, fluidity and sky-high extension was a wonder. Here we caught glimpses of choreographer Willam Christensen’s vaudeville roots as her character “disappeared” from behind a drape.
The marvels continued when Mother Buffoon (danced comically by Trevor Naumann) released tiny bumblebees, the production’s youngest dancers, out from under her massive beehive skirt. More than 12 feet high, she sported dancing legs on her bottom half (compete with striped stockings and clownish red high tops), which gave audiences another old-school trick that was so campy it was charming.
The Chinese variation added texture and color with its 36-foot-long dragon puppet, carried by seven dancers. Tyler Gum, leading in Chinese warrior attire, dazzled the audience with his acrobatics, launching into leaps, jumps and a dizzying array of turns without showing a trace of exhaustion.
Next came the Mirlitons, led by the elegant and breezy Arolyn Williams, whose steps were flawlessly paired to the very famous “Dance of the Reed Flutes.” Also dancing with serene delicacy, the corps swept their flutes through the air with seemingly luxurious ease, yet their lines and technique were precise without seeming rigid.
Rounding out the Divertissement section, the audience greeted the Russian dancers with instant applause and the cheering continued throughout their stunt-heavy routine.
The Waltz of the Flowers pas de deux followed by the Sugar Plum Fairy's and her Cavalier's grand pas de deux finished off the evening in opulent fashion. These final two sections contrasted the earlier, fast-paced entertainment offered to Clara and her Nutcracker-turned-prince.
Katherine Lawrence and Christopher Ruud, both seasoned principal dancers, took on the flower waltz. Her smaller stature seemed at odds with Ruud’s broad frame, but the movement quality seemed like pulling taffy: impassioned, unrushed and melting in a way that aptly expressed their enjoyment.
Finally, real-life couple Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell returned as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
Sisk pressed against the limits of Tchaikovsky’s romantic tune with each step en pointe and every last extension — releasing into the next movement like a slow sigh. Her gorgeous developpes unraveled with slow anticipation and she seemed to float like the flying creature she portrayed.
O’Connell was precise and surefooted. His straight and high jumps looked as if he were attached to an imaginary string, and his towering limbs stretched to fill every corner of the stage with relative ease. Where once O'Connell seemed stiff and unaccustomed to the limelight, he now dances with ebullient ease.
Together, Sisk and O’Connell made a striking pair worthy of the coveted opening night role. It’s one they’ve shared many times before, and hopefully, they’ll continue to share for years to come.