George Balanchine’s THE NUTCRACKER (PA Ballet): Much more than a holiday tradition

Lillian DiPiazza. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Pennsylvania Ballet’s long-running annual playbill of George Balanchine’s THE NUTCRACKER maybe used to be just a beloved holiday tradition. but over the past few years,  the ballet has become much more than just a heartwarming family tradition. The ballet scene in Philadelphia has finally started to catch up to reflect the diverse and multicultural community of the city.  The changes can be seen both on the stage and among the audience. This year, the Christmas tree has been upgraded to a brand new and magical tree—it blinked, dimmed and shined as if it had its own emotions. And the performance under the tree was a whole different Nutcracker, even though it was the same production as past years.   

The cast on opening night featured the company’s greatest talents through the whole acts, along with the young dancers of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet.  The viewers seemed to be filled with holiday cheer. They giggled to the mischievous Fritz performed by Rowan Duffy. This young dancer can be called one of the veterans at this point.  He has been on the stage as Fritz for quite some years and seemed to live in the role fully. 

Pennsylvania Ballet The Nutcracker review

Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

Marie was performed by Audrey Tovar, who has also been on the Nutcracker stage for a few years in multiple roles. She performed her Marie as a young lady with grace and determination who grew through her adventure. 

In the party scene, Jacqueline Callahan, So Jung Shin, and Peter Weil (who danced Toys Harlequin, Columbine, and Soldier) brought great excitement and anticipation towards what would come in Act II by presenting their extraordinary ballet techniques and physicalities.  

Act II was simply dazzling.  In the Land of the Sweets, some iconic short pieces were performed by the principals: Oksana Maslova for Coffee, Zecheng Liang for Tea, Jermel Johnson for Candy Canes, and Nayara Pineiro for Dewdrop of the Waltz of Flowers. Those casts have been repeated in recent years, however, they seemed to have obtained more control and grasp on the choreography.  

Balanchine’s Dewdrop is highly demanding technically and artistry and easy to mess up. Pineiro showed a perfect Dewdrop, if there were such thing as being ‘perfect’ in the world of ballet.  She conducted all of the steps with flawless and breathtaking beauty.  

The highlight of the ballet, the pas de deux of the Sugarplum Fairy and Her Cavalier is cut short in Balanchine’s production. The Sugarplum’s solo is danced in the introduction of Act II and Cavalier does not even get to dance his solo.  The role in the version has rather confusing. They are supposed to be the title roles and the highlight of the ballet but they do not have any depth in their characters. They are asked to be simply dreamy and refined, and that’s all they are asked for.  Still, principals Lillian DiPiazza and Sterling Baca performed their roles exactly as asked. The finale was gorgeous and exciting.

The year-end playbill proved how far the company has come after being exposed to numerous opportunities with diverse choreographers and various styles of ballet both classical and modern.  The dancers have much deeper interpretation in their characters and their physicality and their artistry have improved drastically—So much so that it made the production look a little too simple in some scenes! Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker is much more than a heartwarming holiday tradition.

[Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music, 240 S Broad Street] December 6-31, 2019; paballet.org

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About the author

Eri Yoneda

Eri Yoneda writes about dance and classical music for Phindie.