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EMAV Review: NBT's magical 'Nutcracker' makes Christmas joyful and bright

★★★★☆ - Delicious

Nevada Ballet Theatre makes holiday magic at the Smith Center with their annual presentation of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky's (with Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov) 1892 "The Nutcracker," reimagined and choreographed by former NBT artistic director James Canfield. Canfield, who stepped down from the company in June (Roy Kaiser was recently named the new director) returned to stage his version of the story ballet, now in its sixth year. The show, as always, is a sumptuous visual feast, presented from the dreamy perspective of little girl Clara as inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," with its four-story Victorian dollhouse set, dynamic lighting, and fanciful, faraway lands. And while last year the show felt darkly atmospheric with an emphasis on characterization that stuck closely to the mood of Hoffmann's slightly scary tale, this year it is bright and airy with a more joyous feel.

The opening Christmas Eve "Party" sets the stage for Clara's magical dream and features children of NBT's Academy in different vignettes, a sweet father-daughter dance, and a humorous grandfather (Enrico DeMarco) and grandmother (Madison Ewing) whose wig is so heavy she can barely hold her head up straight. When Clara (Kaori Fukui) is given a nutcracker doll by her godfather the clockmaker Drosselmeyer (Steven Goforth), it becomes her spiritual focus and the rest of the world recedes. While the charismatic Goforth is a fine actor, he plays the eccentric character as a warm and benevolent father-figure without the mysterious edge he crafted last year, so there is a sense of magic and tension that is missing from the scene. The buoyant Fukui keeps Clara firmly rooted in childhood with a girlish enthusiasm, and looks as delicate as a porcelain doll. She's a technically strong dancer but hasn't fleshed out a deep enough character arc through movement and expression to give us an idea of Clara's personal growth, nor does she seem infatuated by her Nutcracker Prince, danced by the powerful Jun Tanabe.

Yet they are perfectly matched both in looks and athletic ability, so much so that they seem more like brother and sister than like a girl and her prince. Excitement builds during the "Transformation" scene, when a doll-sized Clara and the Nutcracker battle the Rat Queen, played by a sinewy Alissa Dale, under the gigantic Christmas tree, and Drosselmeyer turns the Nutcracker into a real boy. Tanabe excels with his wooden movement and effortless spring as the Nutcracker doll, and he and Dale seem to float as they battle it out during their midair duet. The scene is illuminated and choreographed with clarity this year and includes a booming, crowd-pleasing surprise from the toy soldiers, and builds to an exhilarating and dramatic conclusion that transitions us suddenly into the beautiful calmness of snow.

The exquisite "Dancing Snow" scene is like visual dopamine, with a full moon and large snowflakes as stars suspended in an indigo sky, and Snow Maidens who move about with the fluidity of a gentle flurry. The Winter Fairy, danced by Jaimie DeRocker, and her Snow Prince, danced by Sergio Alvarez, are an appealing pair, with Alvarez a supportive and responsive partner. They give a variety of pretty lifts but the recorded music has such a fast tempo and they whip through the pair pirouettes so briskly that on each turn we fear she might lose her balance. They're fine dancers--and perhaps it was an off evening--but they lack precision and passion, and it sometimes seems like they, as well as the corps, are rushing to get from one movement to the next.

Act II brings Clara and the Nutcracker Prince to an art-nouveau style "Enchanted Fairyland," where butterfly-like sprites waltz through streams of sunlight and around giant ropes which are the gnarled roots of trees. Rachel Thomson is a radiant Sugar Plum Fairy, Christina Ghiardi is charming as ever as the Spring Fairy, Krista Baker is a lovely Summer Fairy, and Elizabeth Grist "works" her funny antennae as the Autumn Fairy. Earthy, aesthetic, and joyful, the scene is impeccably choreographed and danced by the fairies and the harmonious corps as the Waltzing Flowers.

Two dances stand out during "The Divertissement." The spirited "Spanish" featuring Toreadors Betsy Lucas, Caroline MacDonald, DeMarco, and David Hochberg, and the sensuous "Arabian" featuring DeRocker moving seductively for noble peacock Benjamin Tucker. "Mother Ginger" is another showstopper featuring Danielle Maas as the titular matriarch in her humongous hooped skirt hiding and then revealing her children, the NBT students who thrill with their incredible tumbling skills.

Kudos to the excellent technical crew and designers--choreographer/ballet mistress Tara Foy, scenery and property designer Patricia Ruel, costume designers Sandra Woodall and Christopher Larson, lighting designer Peter Jakubowski, and music director/conductor Jack Gaughan.

NBT has come a long way since their first "Nutcracker" in 1981, which I saw then with my family and which became a Christmas tradition for many years after. Back then it was "Vegas-ized," but no matter the interpretation, it never goes out of style.

(Pictured: NBT Company Artists Jaime DeRocker and Benjamin Tucker. Photo by Alicia Lee.)

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