A holiday tradition for many Philadelphians, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker opened its curtain on December 11,2015, for another season. Pennsylvania Ballet has been performing George Balanchine’s version of this classic since the 1980s. The version is heavily influenced by the original version by Marius Petipa, who together with composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky created one of the most well-known and beloved ballets in 1881 (premiered in 1892).
The story has no need to be explained in detail here, as it is even well-known for those who are not familiar with ballet: A kind-hearted girl Marie (Clara in some other versions) is given a nutcracker doll by an enigmatic man, Drosselmeier, at her family’s Christmas party. After the party is over, she finds herself in the midst of a battle between and army of soldiers and mice, led by their king, and a nutcracker who appears to lead the soldiers. As the king of mice advances on the wounded nutcracker Marie throws a slipper at the king which distracts him long enough for the nutcracker to prevail. To show his appreciation the nutcracker, who now has turned into a prince, takes her to a Land of Sweets where they dance to praise and to honor her courage.
Balanchine’s choreography is possibly the most family oriented. It does not require a confusing analysis of the story of being a girl and her journey to become an adult. It is a cheerful and charming ballet, where you see happy families enjoying their Christmas traditions under a gorgeous shiny tree. Snowflakes and fairies at the Land of Sweets dance in the girl’s dream.
In act one, the scene of Christmas party, viewers are instantly drawn into the cheerful and warm atmosphere of the dancers and the gorgeous set, brought together with Tchaikovsky’s well-known music. Supported by the adult dancers, the young dancers of the School of Pennsylvania are astonishingly professional. With concentration and enthusiasm the kids convey their excitement and joy to be on the stage. Rowan Duffy, who plays Fritz, is a natural fit for the role of the naughty and cute little brother of Marie. Rachel Stern (Marie) shows a delicate attention to her movements and is highly successful at articulating every emotion Marie feels, including her pure and innocent affection to Herr Drosselmeier’s nephew (who later turns into the nutcracker and the prince in her dream). Laura Bowman and Jon Martin (the Grandparents) provide witty and humorous moments here and there, which lets viewers realize good acting and mime are also key elements for ballet as stage art.
While THE NUTCRACKER might sometimes be considered nothing more than ballet for kids, there is good reason why it is considered one of the most famous classical ballets. Like the other ballets created by Petipa and Tchaikovsky, such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, it has all the essential elements in the classical sense, especially in the later half of the performance—such as corps ballet in a perfectly precise order and soloists who are highly skilled and expressive.
Balanchine’s version can be highly challenging due to his more intricate choreography and with hectic steps.Among the soloists, two male dancers, Jermel Johnson (Tea) and Andrew Daly (Candy Cane) leave a vivid impression. While it is not uncommon for male dancers to impress physically with frequent jetes and pirouettes, Johnson and Daly still manage to make their mark with these performances. Johnson shows the most beautiful jete and crisp pas with great charm in his brief piece. Lillian Di Piazza, who dances Coffee, is also noteworthy. Her elegant movements have a well-balanced combination of stillness and dynamism that delivers an exotic, and somewhat sensual, atmosphere to the piece.
There is just one tiny hiccup in the second act, when a little princess (Marie) and prince sit still at the back center of the stage. They almost never interact with each other while the dancers of the Land of the Sweets perform; this stands out as a bit odd. The director’s intention may be to focus attention exclusively to the soloists and let the kids fade out, however, this asks one to consider why they are in the scene at all. It would be less awkward to give cute and heartwarming moments here and there by showing them chatting and interacting with each other, more than simply clapping their hands after each dance.
THE NUTCRACKER is open through the end of this year. For those who have never seen a ballet, this is also a great opportunity to experience classical ballet at a theater filled with the holiday spirit.
[The Academy of Music, 240 S Broad St,] December 11-31, 2015; paballet.org.