Hol­i­day tra­di­tion still has power to move, awe

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE - By Holly Har­ris

YOU know it’s be­gin­ning to look a lot like Christ­mas when the Royal Winnipeg Bal­let presents its en­chanted Nutcracker. The eight-show an­nual hol­i­day pro­duc­tion, which runs un­til Dec. 29, opened Thurs­day night, whisk­ing chil­dren of all ages into by­gone days of in­no­cence. Chore­ographed in 1999 by Galina Yor­danova and Nina Menon, the 124-minute (in­clud­ing in­ter­mis­sion) story bal­let set in 1913 Winnipeg tells the tale of young Clara, gifted with a wooden nutcracker by her god­fa­ther Drosselmeier on Christ­mas Eve. Af­ter she falls asleep, she dreams of jour­ney­ing through mag­i­cal forests and king­doms to dance with her hand­some Nutcracker Prince. Set to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score with the Winnipeg Sym­phony Orches­tra led by Tadeusz Bier­nacki, the quintessen­tially Cana­dian pro­duc­tion also fea­tures games of street hockey, snow an­gels, Royal Cana­dian Mounted Po­lice and furry Busby hats, with cos­tumes de­signed by Paul Daigle. It’s also al­ways a plea­sure to see Brian Per­chaluk’s re­splen­dent sets, in­clud­ing a grand man­sion and pas­tel-in­fused king­dom, ef­fec­tively lit in rosy hues by Michael J. Whit­field. Nutcracker pro­duc­tions are the bread and but­ter of most bal­let com­pa­nies — help­ing to fuel the rest of the sea­son’s pro­gram­ming — and of­ten the first bal­let ever seen by pa­trons. This one has steadily evolved over the years, in­clud­ing the ad­di­tion of eight adorable cherubs a few years back, with the kid count — culled from the RWB School’s re­cre­ational and pro­fes­sional di­vi­sion stu­dents — now num­ber­ing more than 40 among the cast. The youth­ful per­form­ers con­sis­tently draw oohs and ahhs from the au­di­ence, whether they are bak­ing a frothy cake as an­gels or scur­ry­ing across the stage as baby mice and hurl­ing over­sized veg­eta­bles dur­ing the Act I bat­tle scene. Ku­dos to Sa­mara Rit­tinger (Young Clara), Ju­lianne Chartier (Di­eter) and Liam Saito (Julien) for their con­fi­dent per­for­mances, with Rit­tinger and Saito’s del­i­cate, tweenawk­ward waltz par­tic­u­larly touch­ing as they re­al­ize their blush­ing fond­ness for each other. Prin­ci­pal dancer Amanda Green (with al­ter­nat­ing casts) shone as lead­ing char­ac­ter Clara, ex­ud­ing poise and re­gal au­thor­ity so right for this role. Her ex­quis­ite port de bras and strong mu­si­cal­ity were given full rein dur­ing her cli­mac­tic pas de deux, in­clud­ing soar­ing lifts per­formed with Liang Xing’s Nutcracker Prince that be­came its own poetry in mo­tion. Xing im­bued his char­ac­ter with the req­ui­site no­bil­ity, his ex­pres­sive face and lean physique, in­clud­ing grace­fully long limbs, adding re­fine­ment to the Rus­sian-based chore­og­ra­phy. His pair­ing with Green felt wholly or­ganic, cre­at­ing a new lyri­cal part­ner­ing equa­tion that will be ea­gerly watched in the fu­ture. Eric Nipp brought an­i­mated hu­mour to his flam­boy­ant Drosselmeier, sav­ing the day with a mag­i­cal Christ­mas tree that grows sky-high, as well as per­form­ing his own Gigue with Anna O’Cal­laghan’s gra­cious Su­gar Plum Fairy. Ser­ena Sand­ford also kicked up her heels as the coltish Aunt Josephine — a singer from Mon­treal — dur­ing the lively party scene. Clev­erly, this par­tic­u­lar Nutcracker also cel­e­brates Canada’s mul­ti­cul­tural her­itage (al­though the host of folk­loric dances from dif­fer­ent lands also ex­ists in more tra­di­tional pro­duc­tions), re­flected even in the grow­ing eth­nic diver­sity of the 74-year-old troupe it­self. The lovely, lilt­ing Waltz of the Flow­ers per­formed by the corps de bal­let dancers was matched in beauty only by the glit­ter­ing Snowflakes dur­ing Act I’s Mag­i­cal For­est scene, un­der­scored by the sweet voices of the Winnipeg Boys’ Choir. The mys­te­ri­ous Ara­bian dance proved another high­light, con­trast­ing with the perky in­tri­cacy of the Chi­nese dance, bound­ing leaps of the Rus­sian and Span­ish ensem­bles. Fil­bert the bear was also back; his wad­dling for Christ­mas treats drew de­lighted gig­gles from the crowd. A few tech­ni­cal mal­func­tions, in­clud­ing wonky cur­tain drops and a mis­placed set piece, marred an oth­er­wise smooth pro­duc­tion. See­ing the gor­geous tableau that caps the bal­let’s Act II di­ver­tisse­ment with its ethe­real dancers held aloft, only to glimpse them be­ing dropped un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously back to earth, mo­men­tar­ily broke the spell. Many Nutcrack­ers have now come and gone. One could eas­ily cry, “Bah, hum­bug,” and grow weary of its oft-told story. How­ever, as with Young Clara, if one takes a leap of faith, its poignant tale of childhood dreams only deep­ens and grows richer in mean­ing, truly re­flect­ing the won­der of the sea­son.

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