There’s not much to say about the choreography in Miami City Ballet’s world-premiere of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker – his 1954 version is a neoclassical classic, and the South Florida company has performed it for 27 years. What’s new, and absolutely MCB’s own, is the production, which premiered on 7 December at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Los Angeles Music Center.
In a co-commission with the Music Center, artistic director Lourdes Lopez brought in Cuban-American designers Isabel and Ruben Toledo to dream up signature sets and costumes that would hark back to the Victorian era while also heralding modern visual effects and technology. Isabel Toledo is a couturiere and her husband is a visual designer, and this Nutcracker benefits from their shared imagination and attention to detail.
The Toledos play with the strictures of stagecraft, and win some of their gambles. Loosely inspired by early-1800s fashions, the party costumes are layered with ruffles, lace and a dusting of sparkles, and no two are quite alike. The couple’s dearth of large-scale theater experience shows in costumes like the dancing dolls’, which are handsomely crafted but need more vibrancy to read clearly from a distance and to distinguish the dolls as larger-than-life curiosities that mesmerize the children.
Act I starts out looking semi-conventional, in a Victorian-looking home that’s decked with this, garlanded with that, and suspiciously cartoonish – surely there are surprises in the works. And as soon as the storyline allows them, the Toledos drop the decorum and head straight for the absinthe bottle, launching a trippy sequence that peaks with melting wallpaper laced in a psychedelic color show. Mary Blair’s illustrations for Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland come to mind; James F. Ingalls’s lighting heightens the hallucinatory effect.
The Christmas tree doesn’t rise to that standard; crafted of tiers of painted fabric, it grows feebly before getting whisked into the flies and replaced by abstract projections on the backdrop. Wendall K. Harrington’s animated projections play a large role throughout the first act, setting a winter village scene for the prologue, establishing the Stahlbaum home and layering flurries over the gorgeously danced Waltz of the Snowflakes. Oddly, the dynamic visuals disappear from Act II, which features a respectful refresh on the traditional costumes and flat, overly bright lighting.
Not that the audience cared about any of that. They loved this new Nutcracker from the top of Mother Ginger’s expressionless insect mask (perhaps attributable to the lingering effects of absinthe, and not nearly as dramatically effective as a campy human face) to the hem of each petal-pink waltzing flower. This production will delight children in particular, who can see themselves in the young Clara, portrayed by a radiant Renata Adarvez; she has a lovely presence and a real future on the stage. As Herr Drosselmeier’s nephew, Erick Rojas squired her with gentlemanly dignity and acquitted himself very nicely in his mimed storytelling to Jennifer Lauren’s Sugar Plum Fairy. Students from the nearby Colburn School, headed by former New York City Ballet star Jenifer Ringer, and the Gabriella Foundation’s everybody dance! program were cast as boys, girls, toy soldiers and polichinelles, and they were wonderful; the bunny drummer led the whimsical battalion with almost unbearable cuteness.
The MCB dancers exude Balanchine brio and delight in performing his intricate steps, but they had to give their all to keep up with the youngsters. Eric Trope set the bar as the lively Mouse King, Nicole Stalker and Jovani Furlan were a delight as the Hot Chocolate leads, and Kleber Rebello and Shimon Ito were spitfire as the leaping leads in Candy Canes and Tea, respectively. (Now that City Ballet has done away with the caricatured pointed fingers in the Tea variation, MCB ought to consider doing the same.) Nathalia Arja danced Dew Drop with a crystalline lightness and endearing charm that belied the ferocity of the allegro choreography. Other soloists seemed outmatched; Jordan-Elizabeth Long never quite found the musicality in Coffee, and Ashley Knox’s momentum flagged in Marzipan.
Some of the stagecraft will hopefully be ironed out prior to this production’s home-theater debut on 15 December: timing for some visual effects needs perfecting, and the men’s wigs and mustaches were scruffy and edged with shiny glue – Reyneris Reyes danced and dramatized compellingly as Herr Drosselmeier, but his coif looked like it had seen better days. The Los Angeles Children’s Chorus beautifully complemented the orchestra, but the musicians struggled with some of the tempos and didn’t uniformly follow Gary Sheldon’s baton. Those hiccups can be sorted out by grownups, and children will go on to remember this unique Nutcracker for years to come.