Dancing against type
offering a busy, theatrical, magical depiction of the familiar story.
The directors wisely chose to bring in reinforcements. A healthy contingent of guest artists not only raised the numbers on stage for the big group dances, but these dancers brought a somewhat more classical approach than is usual for ASFB members — beautiful arm carriage, precise footwork, and that very lifted, ethereal quality that is usually rejected by the young, earthier choreographers hired to create works on the company. Other guests brought with them international authority — performing very convincing, entertaining variations during Act II’s around-the-world divertissement. Anna Zinenko from Ukraine and Boulat Moukhametov from Russia performed the Russian dance and Zhongemei Li, who began her training in Beijing, danced the Chinese section. Katrina Amerine turned the Arabian number into an aerial act, with gravity-defying feats involving a length of golden silk flown in from the rafters.
Company members Katie Dehler and Sam Chittenden as the Snow King and Queen and Katherine Bolaños and Seth DelGrasso as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier had their moments in the limelight, each bringing a combination of authority and discomfort to the demands of the exacting classical form. Elizabeth Martinez, a guest dancer originally from Norway, was the Dew Drop. Her statuesque Nordic looks and shimmering costume caused her to stand out like a dancer from another planet. Her performance seemed restrained; she was not as fully invested in her role as the other soloists were.
It was the corps, as snowflakes and then as flowers, who offered the greatest pure dance rewards of the evening. These dancers seemed to be having the time of their lives, waltzing in the snow at the end of Act I and then again in vivid, rosecolored gowns in Act II. The choreography here was quick-moving and varied. The dancers may have been fewer in numbers than in many big-city versions of this ballet, but they filled the stage with committed, musical, and communicative dancing.
Clara, the little girl whose dreams not only feed the narrative of the ballet but represent those of every young girl who has ever taken a ballet class, was played by ASFB school student Hanna Bass on the evening I attended. From the moment she displayed her pointe-shoe-clad feet in the spotlight, lying on a settee before the big Christmas party, it was clear that she would be able to handle the role. When older dancers are cast in the part, there can be an underlying sexual tension suggested — a longing that turns the toy Nutcracker into a man. This production was strictly from a younger point of view, and Nolan DeMarco McGahan as the Nutcracker, along with Chittenden and DelGrasso, were mainly there to lift and pose. Christmas in a glass-roofed Victorian conservatory, ballerinas in rose-colored tulle, falling snow, a carousel — Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s The Nutcracker is a go-for-broke visual extravaganza, with sumptuous costumes, elaborate sets, and all the theatrical magic families could ask for. For a small ballet company that mainly inhabits a stark and moody modern repertory, this is a change of pace; for audiences, it’s like waking up in a Technicolor Oz. Some joyful and accomplished dancing by an expanded corps served as a good counterbalance to the extraneous aspects of the production.
Stage business sometimes seemed like a coverup for choreography (by company directors Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty) that wasn’t taking many chances. Dry-ice fog filled the stage, creating a dramatic ambience, for example, but you couldn’t see the dancers’ feet. And the ballet-as-recital ritual — the artistically questionable inclusion of large numbers of children being paraded around the stage without even dancing — places this Nutcracker high on the cute scale and lower on the dance meter.
Ultimately, however, who really cares how mind-blowing the steps are during a Nutcracker? It’s a spectacle, like seeing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Balletomanes can enjoy other evenings and other programs.
Tchaikovsky’s music for the Nutcracker has almost mystical powers over many of us, no matter how many times it has played in our psyches. Just hearing the first few notes, even over a so-so sound system (prerecorded music was used in this production) can lead to a holiday trance state. ASFB’s Nutcracker stays true to the grand romanticism of the music,