Oakland Ballet Company artistic director Graham Lustig recently upped his commitment from part-time to full-time, and the benefits of his focused attention were apparent in the company’s opening performance of The Nutcracker. Now in its seventh season in Oakland, Lustig’s whimsical signature production opened a three-performance engagement at the Paramount Theatre with a matinee on Saturday, December 17.
Set in early-20th-century Vienna, this Nutcracker is welcoming and unpretentious, and it moves as briskly as a storybook. During the overture, teenage Marie’s imagination is set off when she sees her cousin Vera get a kiss on the hand from her Cadet suitor. The rest of the ballet is filtered through Marie’s not-quite-adult perspective: silly dancing peppermints and baby mice get equal billing with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, played by the same dancers cast as Vera and the Cadet.
Lustig’s Fritz is a truly naughty boy who does a lot more than blare a trumpet during quiet time. He knocks guests over, nearly runs a friend through with a sword and traumatizes Marie terribly, setting him up as the catalyst for her fever dream. Some of the party girls are also delightfully mean-spirited; naturally, they become the Rat Infantry. When the dreaming Marie overcomes her doppelgänger tormentors and kills the Rat King, you feel that she has claimed her own agency. (Who says ballet is anti-feminist?)
Lustig’s libretto tells a complete tale, with all the foreshadowed elements in the first act coming to fruition in the second. The twenty company dancers, some local and some from as far away as New York, added their own infectious enthusiasm and upbeat showmanship.
As Marie, Ramona Kelley was the heart of the show. A Bay Area native who now dances in the Twyla Tharp Company, she is as musical and lyrical as they come. Lustig jettisoned mime in favor of physical acting, and Marie’s every emotion reads clearly on Kelley’s face and in her movement.
Seyong Kim was a joyful Nutcracker, with soft leaps and landings; more rehearsal time would have smoothed out his partnering of Kelley. Ian Debono is billed as a student dancer, but his Fritz stole quite a few scenes. Tori Jahn’s lovely extensions made Mrs. Stahlbaum one to watch, while Scott McMahan was a jovial, if not mysterious, Drosselmeyer.
The ensemble dancing was the strongest I’ve seen in this production to date, with clean technique and unified timing even across the Act I social dances, the Snowmaidens in the Frosted Forest, and the Flowers. These dances can seem like background noise, especially in productions like this one, in which they frame significant pas de deux; however, refined execution makes them a pleasure to watch in their own right. And no one can resist the waltzing snowballs, danced by ten of the many children in the production; waddling across the stage wearing giant baby-blue puffballs, they remind everyone that this production is meant to be fun.
The Royal Ballet–trained Lustig included serious classical choreography here, too, including frissons of the petit allegro that is so often neglected these days. In Act I, he uses small jumps and beaten steps to convey delight; in the Act II, they increase the challenge of the variations. Alysia Chang made a vivacious Nightingale (Chinese), deploying lots of grand pas de chats; Alice Cao was the more vivacious half of the folk-dancing Russian pair with Richard Link.
In the German (Merlitons) pas de deux, Vincent Brewer showed clean double turns but less facility in partnering Colleen Soltys, who was barely discernable beneath heavy skirts and a bustle. Lustig’s Arabian, an entanglement of acrobatic lifts, lowerings and flips, puts every cast – this time Ava Chatterton and Sam Beard – at a significant disadvantage and breaks the music’s mesmeric spell.
Megan Terry and Jesse Campbell had just the right chemistry as Vera/Cadet and Sugar Plum Fairy/Cavalier. Campbell’s steady partnering, combined with Terry’s attention to fine but important details like port de bras and the placement of retiré, painted an appealing portrait of Marie’s idealized future self.
Michael Morgan conducted the Oakland Symphony, and members of the Mt. Eden High School Women’s Ensemble provided harmonious vocal accompaniment. Broadway veteran Zack Brown designed the gingerbread-sweet sets and costumes, spangled with rhinestones that looked freshly polished for a festive new season.