`The Nutcracker' still has bite

Ballet Theatre of Maryland keeps Christmas classic fresh with beauty, whimsy


December 14, 2007|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Ballet Theatre of Maryland artistic director Dianna Cuatto told the audience that she never gets tired of The Nutcracker, even though she often danced in it during her performing career and has choreographed versions of the classic ballet.

Cuatto continues to tweak and improve her choreography to make The Nutcracker the best yet. Packed with nostalgia, this ballet is comfortably familiar but fresh, lively and joyous. It is often breathtakingly beautiful, both in dance and in scenery. The scenery has been color-coordinated with costumes so that every detail bespeaks creative commitment.

Based on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816, Tchaikovsky's beloved score composed in 1892 tells the story of 12-year-old Clara, who receives a nutcracker for her Christmas birthday. In Clara's dream, the nutcracker turns into a prince who accompanies her to the magical kingdoms of snow and sweets and dreams.

The Ballet Theatre of Maryland captures the dreamlike quality from the opening scene, when Herr Drosselmeyer and his nephew are shopping for Christmas gifts. Behind the shop, we view the family living room through a scrim, which lends a dreamlike quality to the scene. Soon the living room is filled with beautifully costumed party-goers greeting each other and dancing.

It is Cuatto's custom to double-cast the principals, with several dancers performing the lead roles at different performances.

On Saturday night, the role of Clara was danced by Christi Bleakly (who alternates with Jessica Fry in the role). Bleakly's performance was nearly flawless, seeming childlike as she accepts the nutcracker gift and then transforming into a lovely young woman who discovers love with her nutcracker prince.

Bryan Skates (who alternates with David McAlister) danced the role of the Nephew/Nutcracker/Prince, bringing vigor, superb technique and partnering skills to these hero roles.

Just as The Nutcracker ballet seems to improve each year, so does Albert Kessler (Cuatto's husband), who is performing for at least the fourth year in the role as Drosselmeyer. Kessler has added notable partnering skills to his expertise with cape flourishing and conveying the conflicting qualities of Drosselmeyer's enigmatic character.

Alexis Decker was a lovely Dew Drop Fairy in the ethereal Waltz of the Flowers. Flower-like costumes in shades of lilac, peach and pink blend with the fabulous scenic backdrop.

All backdrops are created by a talented trio of scenic artists -- Laura Palmer, Lynne Wilson and Jane Wingard.

Jessica Fry brought her signature grace and strength to the role of Snow Queen, dancing with David McAllister as Snow King in the glistening Snow Scene setting -- another segment hard to top for sheer beauty.

Fry showed her versatility in the athletic Arabian solo -- dancing superbly with Calder Taylor, who proved a strong partner to combine the requisite grace and sensuality of this segment.

Other highlights included the Spanish section, excitingly danced by Jamie Skates and David McAllister.

Cuatto's Nutcracker is not only visually lovely, but filled with charming whimsy and fun to captivate parents and children. Little mice die in battle with amusing flourishes. In all their scenes, the well-rehearsed children seemed completely professional, dancing as mice, cookies, snowflakes or tiny sugar plum fairies.

Nutcracker performances will be offered at 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sunday with a Sugar Plum party at 3:30 p.m. at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.

On Saturday, a special performance of a new ballet The Case of the Missing Nutcracker will be offered at 7 p.m.

For ticket prices and availability of seats, call Maryland Hall Box Office at 410-280-5640.

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