When the Imperial Ballet premiered the first Nutcracker at the Maryinsky Theatre in 1892, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s Christmas ballet was rather unremarkable. Critics lambasted the dancers and accused Tchaikovsky of being too heavy handed with the score. Who would have thought that, 126 years later, The Nutcracker would be one of the most cherished holiday traditions in America? Like A Christmas Carol and pajama-clad TV marathons of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and It’s a Wonderful Life, we see The Nutcracker to relax and celebrate, taking in a magical tale told through dance.
When it comes to The Nutcracker, there are plenty of choices, and artistic director Michael Pink’s staging for the Milwaukee Ballet, running through Dec. 26 at the Marcus Center, is honestly one of my favorites. The sets and costumes of this production are lovingly broken in, and the company’s dancers so used to dancing it, that they’re clearly having fun onstage.
Despite its popularity, The Nutcracker’s plot can be thin, at best. Ever the storyteller, Pink’s version smashes together a few of the various interpretations of the Nutcracker story to create a narrative through-line that tracks through the whole production.
Three siblings, Clara, Fritz and Marie, fall asleep by the Christmas tree, drunk on sugar and exhausted from a rousing Christmas party. What unfolds next is the stuff of their dreams: Fritz fights in a battle between life-sized soldiers and mice; Clara’s beloved nutcracker, a gift from quirky toymaker Drosselmeyer, saves the day and transforms into a handsome prince, who is the love interest of older sister Marie.
In weaving his narrative, Pink creates four challenging lead roles: Clara, Fritz, Marie and Karl, Drosselmeyer’s assistant who swoons Marie and becomes both the Nutcracker prince and Cavalier to Marie’s Sugar Plum Fairy in the second act.
While many a Clara has sat at the side of the stage upon a throne for 35 minutes enduring the divertissements from the Kingdom of the Sweets, she and Fritz frolic throughout each of the variations, the highlights of which are the Shepherdess and her three quacking geese, and three acrobatic jacks flip-flopping (danced in the opening matinee by the hilarious Barry Molina, Isaac Sharratt and Isaac Allen) in the place usually reserved for the Russian trepak, a folk dance nestled into Mother Ginger’s variation instead.
It’s asking a lot for Marie and Karl to dance the entire first act, including a beautiful pas de deux before the snow scene, then to reappear in the second and perform the Sugar Plum grand pas de deux, which is the only bit of choreography Pink preserved from the original Petipa/Ivanov ballet. Knowing this, I can generously forgive some wobbles or bobbles, however Lahna Vanderbush and Randy Crespo’s performance of this, one of the most well-known and loved grand pas de deux there is, was pretty spot on.
And while the more difficult variations, like the Arabian and Spanish duets and Luis Mondragon’s delightful Chinese solo, are likely to impress, it’s hard to deny that it’s the children’s cast – young dancers of all ages including students of the Milwaukee Ballet School – who steal the show. When that line of tiny angels in white rompers and pastel-colored wings started twirling at the top of act two, I fell in love with Nutcracker all over again. And the grown-up Milwaukee Ballet Company echoes their blithe naïveté, which makes me believe they aren’t sick of Nutcracker just yet (whether or not that’s the case).
It’s a feeling wrapped up in the small details buzzing in the background of a ballet which refuses to take itself too seriously, things you might not notice until you’ve seen it a couple of times. Uncovering those gems tucked into the corners of this Nutcracker, and forgetting about life for a while as we settle in for a magical tale in which children’s dreams come true, I think, is why we go back year after year.
Go See It: Milwaukee Ballet presents The Nutcracker at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through Dec. 26.