Bucks County Herald

Review:

American Repertory Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is a holiday treat

LISA JO SAGOLLA

The best holiday-season treats are often those that flavor familiar traditions with just a smidgen of new, unexpected delights, which is exactly what the American Repertory Ballet’s enchanting “Nutcracker” does in perfect proportion.

Performed by the accomplished professional dancers of the New Jersey-based ARB, joined by select students from the company’s affiliated Princeton Ballet School, the ambitious production maintains the traditional fairy-tale storyline, stirring Tchaikovsky score, and diverse choreographic elements, ranging from the period social dances of the Act I Christmas Eve party scene to the comic antics of mice and rats, the geometric patternings of wind-blown snowflakes, and the delicious array of ethnic-tinged dances that fuel Act II’s journey through the Land of Sweets.

But there are also little surprises that may tickle even those who’ve seen the classic ballet countless times.
Directed and choreographed by ARB artistic director Douglas Martin, with additional choreography by Audrée and Bud Estey and Mary Barton, this “Nutcracker” has the young Clara – usually danced by a child in soft ballet slippers – performing on pointe. In the matinee I saw at McCarter Theatre Center on Nov. 24, the role was persuasively danced by Olivia Wojtowicz, an affecting dancer-actor whose dramatic performance was eclipsed only by Flavio Altieri as her Nutcracker Prince.

Altieri’s elongated Act II-launching pantomime, in which the character re-caps the main events of Act I, turned what’s often a musty mime sequence into a show-stopping dance-drama.

Also unexpectedly delightful is the battle between the Nutcracker’s army of toy soldiers and a group of ravishingly-costumed Rats. While the entire production sports exquisite costumes, designed by Lowell A. Mathwich and Gina Ricca, the oversized, sculptured Rat heads are extraordinary. And in this version, the appearance of the mean Rats (danced by adult performers) is preceded by an ensemble of baby mice, adorably portrayed by the tiniest of the ballet students who, like all the children in the show, perform with terrific accuracy, energy and musicality. A simple group dance by Clara and her little girlfriends, in which they rock their baby dolls to sleep at the end of the party, is performed with wonderful sincerity and concentration.

Among the performances by the ballet’s adult professionals, most impressive was the authoritative rendering of the Snow Queen and Snow King’s thrilling pas de deux by sparkling Lily Saito and dreamy Jacopo Jannelli, who moves his long arms and torso with showy eloquence. Emily Parker exuded mesmerizing sultriness in the Arabian Coffee variation, Toleu Mukanov wowed with his jumps-through-the-hoop as a Russian Candy Cane, and charming Aldeir Monteiro proved an excellent porteur as the Cavalier supporting Nanako Yamamoto’s aloof, though technically solid, portrayal of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The only disappointment is the production’s unusual interpretation of Drosselmeyer, the strange, menacing one-eyed party guest who gifts Clara the nutcracker. Here, as played by Doug Jackson, Drosselmeyer walks around as if dazed, his arms always out in a palms-up gesture of confusion, and comes across as a goofy, fey old uncle, robbing the ballet of an element of mystery, a fun feeling of fright, and the important darkness that balances all its sugary sweetness.

Performances continue at venues across New Jersey through Dec. 23

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