J.F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
November 24, 2009
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright © 2009 by Alexandra Tomalonis
Is the quest over? The Kennedy Center has been trying for several years to find a "Nutcracker" that suits the house, and with the Pennsylvania Ballet's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker," it may have finally found the right one. The costumes and sets are lovely, there's plenty of magic for the children and dancing for the fans. Best of all, if this is your first "Nutcracker" you might actually want to come back and see more ballet!
This is the production that started it all, the little seed from which one very large tree has grown. George Balanchine staged the ballet he had known since childhood when his company was less than a decade old, and it's a textbook on how to make a ballet that fits a young company in its current stage of development, yet gives it ample room to grow. There are roles for dozens of children of various ages, and the dances in the famous "Kingdom of the Sweets" divertissement are suitable for assorted styles and talents. The Rose Waltz is a first-rate piece of choreography by itself, and the Pennsylvania Ballet corps danced it beautifully.
"Tne Nutcracker" was not popular among the balletomanes when it was new because there wasn't a fully developed ballerina role. They were accustomed to a three- or four-act ballet with the ballerina demonstrating different aspects of her technique ad personality in each one. In "Nutcracker," the Sugar Plum Fairy doesn't enter until the second act, and aside from a few moments of gracious miming, has only one pas de deux. Today's balletomanes grumble because there's very little for her cavalier to dance.
The star couple has to make a big impression on their own, and neither Julie Diana nor Zachary Hench as yet have the authority to make you forget how little stage time they have. Amy Aldridge was a very musical Dewdrop (a character Balanchine invented to lead the Rose Waltz) but also lacked sparkle. Today's dancers aren't used to grand classical ballet, and it must be a difficult adjustment to move from contemporary work where everyone is alike to a ballet that demands individuality in its soloists.
The leading children had individuality to burn, though, especially Lucas Tischler as an elfin Fritz, who looked as though he could move from an action movie set to a Victorian parlor without difficulty. Peter Weil was a very gallant young Nutcracker/Nephew (who got the most applause of the evening), and Stephanie Bandura's Clara managed to be appropriately sweet and demure while trying to either avoid or expose Fritz's misdeeds.
Among the soloists, I particularly admired Abigail Mentzer and the other Marzipan Shepherdesses, and Jermel Johnson as an exuberant high-jumping Candy Cane.
There was no conductor credited in the program that I could find, but the Kennedy Center Orchestra and Norwood Middle School Choir did ample justice to the score. The mere presence of an orchestra is something one can no longer take for granted, but for this "Nutcracker," it's as important as the tree.