Erica Wong as Clara and Joshua Burnham as the Nutcracker Prince… (Bud Johnson, Special to…)
Ballet Theatre of Maryland artistic director Dianna Cuatto has a seemingly inexhaustible array of choreographic magic to enliven each annual performance of "The Nutcracker" at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.
Blessed with a strong group of new dancers, including Joshua Burnham, Stirling Matheson, Edward Tracz, Erica Wong and Django Allegretti, BTM offers its best-ever "Nutcracker" this season.
Not only does the company boast strong dancers, it also has talented backstage artists, including ballerina Meagan Helman serving as set artist as well as production and tech designer along with Brian Walker; Alyssa Johnson is wardrobe mistress; Calder Taylor is prop master; Helman, Taylor and Walker work with Valerie Walker and Kathryn Carlson on production and sets.
New clocks were created by Walker, Helman and Taylor with the assistance of Adam Cole and Joshua Burnham. Helman and Johnson also designed costumes.
Cuatto continues to tweak and improve her choreography, which is bright, joyous and imaginatively witty. Packed with nostalgia, this ballet is comfortably familiar and yet still fresh. Cuatto's distinctive scenery is color-coordinated with the costumes.
Based on "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," written by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816, Tchaikovsky's 1892 score 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 magical kingdoms of snow, sweets and dreams.
Ballet Theatre of Maryland captures a dreamlike quality from the opening scene, when Herr Drosselmeier and his nephew, Christopher, are shopping for special Christmas gifts for Clara, who is Drosselmeier's niece. Behind the shop, the family living room is visible through a scrim.
Soon, the living room is filled with beautiful costumed partygoers greeting each other and dancing. Drosselmeier and his nephew arrive with their gifts, including a life-size mechanical doll and Clara's special nutcracker.
Clara's mischievous brother, Fritz, teases her and drops the nutcracker, stabbing it with his toy sword. Clara is consoled by Christopher while Drosselmeier works his magic to repair her nutcracker as the Christmas party ends.
It is Cuatto's custom to double-cast the principals, with dancers alternating performances. At the opening-night performance, Wong danced the role of Clara with joyous grace, remarkable speed and superb technique to add up to the best Clara I've seen.
Also on opening night, ballet master Burnham danced the Nutcracker Prince with vigorous charm, thrilling elevations and sure partnering skills.
Together, Wong and Burnham were amazing in their grand pas de deux of bravura dancing. I can't recall enjoying better performances of these leading roles.
Also performing as Clara will be Carlson and Nicole Seitz. Brian Walker will alternate as the Nutcracker Prince.
Other major roles include the Snow Queen, beautifully danced by Seitz on opening night. The Snow King was danced by Brian Walker, who executed lifts perfectly to display the full excitement of Cuatto's choreography. Helman danced the Dew Drop Fairy to what seemed perfection (to also be danced by Johnson and Wong).
As BTM's "Nutcracker" ballet improves each year, so too does Albert Kessler (Cuatto's husband) as Drosselmeier, now in his seventh year in the role and an expert in conveying mysterious Drosselmeier's enigmatic, conflicting, eccentric and menacing moods along with his avuncular fondness for Clara.
Act 2 contains much bravura dancing, including Arabian soloists Taylor with Valerie Walker, Helman and Carlson and Russian soloists Brian Walker, Calder Taylor and Stirling Matheson.
Always adorably showstopping are the children, who add charm to several scenes through each performance. Familiar yet fresh and, this season especially, magical, BTM's "Nutcracker" is a not-to-be-missed holiday event.
If you go
"The Nutcracker" closes Sunday, Dec. 19, with performances at 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St., Annapolis. A free Sugar Plum Party is held an hour before each Sunday performance.