Ballet Minnesota bills its holiday production as The Classic Nutcracker, and the title doesn’t lie—even if “classic” is used in the sense of a Realtor describing a “classic split-level.” You get your party scene, you get your cute mice (or, in this production, “cheese friends”), you get your showdown with the Rat King, you get your divertissements, you get your pas de flippin’ deux, and everyone goes home feeling warm and fuzzy.
|the classic nutcracker, presented by ballet minnesota through december 21 at the o’shaughnessy, 2004 randolph ave., st. paul. for tickets ($27-$40) and information, see balletminnesota.org.|
I wouldn’t describe myself as jaded, but it should be acknowledged that I’ve seen a lot of Nutcrackers—or, at least, a lot of performances of one Nutcracker: the version presented in the Boston area by José Mateo Ballet Theatre, where I used to work as an administrator. (I learned everything I need to know about theater when, during one matinee, the petite Snow Prince caught the leaping Snow Queen and staggered to his knees under her weight—the audience apparently had no clue it wasn’t all part of the show.) When I moved back to Minnesota, I was pleased to discover that the Twin Cities host so many Nutcrackers that it’s not feasible to catch them all in one year. I decided to try one each year…and why not start with the “classic”?
Artistic Director Andrew Rist’s production certainly has a lot to recommend it. The sets and elaborate props are fun, and when the props are pushed away, the company’s principals demonstrate strong technique and a welcome showmanship. Rist’s choreography is never exhilarating, but it’s always watchable and occasionally inventive—especially in the sultry Arabian dance and the aforementioned climactic pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier.
Sara Ezzell, the Clara I saw, is rock solid in the challenging en pointe role—and it’s a good thing, because Rist gives his Claras a real workout. The character is onstage for nearly the entire ballet, though for much of the second act she gets to don a tiara and rest on a throne (Libby Lu, eat your heart out). Any traditional Nutcracker is going to involve the awkward fact of little Clara being whisked around and given magical presents by conspicuously older men, and this Clara is no exception—the poor kid gets picked up and actually whipped by the Rat King, and Robert Cleary’s weirdly lithe Drosselmeyer keeps jumping down from atop things and wrapping his goddaughter under his cloak. Eventually she seems to cower at his appearance, and I can’t blame her.
Some aspects of the production are seriously problematic. The Nutcracker is not really about narrative, but there is a story there, and in this production it’s a little confusing. Why does the Nutcracker’s dummy head come and go repeatedly? Why does the Rat King show up for a rematch, and why does it end with him simply sauntering offstage? Especially in the complicated party and battle scenes, musical cues often come and go without much correspondence in the choreography. (Never mind that dramatic minor-key interlude, kids! It’s bound to pass.) And while in theory it’s nice to have live music rather than a recording, it must be said: at the performance I saw, the Mississippi Valley Orchestra was riding the struggle bus. Obviously you don’t go to a regional ballet performance expecting the LSO, but when the strings start drifting from Tchaikovsky into Schoenberg, it’s an issue.
Picky, picky! I enjoyed myself, and the curtain-call hoots from various corners of the auditorium made clear that a large portion of the audience comprised justly proud friends and family members. The O’Shaughnessy is a perfect venue for this production—large enough that there’s room for the magic to breathe (when you can hear the tapping of pointe shoes, that’s good, but when you can hear the dancers panting, that’s bad) and small enough that, if you’re lucky, you might just catch one of those tiny paper snowflakes.
Jay Gabler (email@example.com) is the Daily Planet’s arts editor.