Thursday, December 25, 2008

Dance review: Ballet Florida's engaging 'Nutcracker'


By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH -- It doesn't take a great ballet company to make a successful Nutcracker. In many cases, all a dance group has to do is go heavy on the cute factor with mouse suits and child dancers, and a holiday-minded audience ready to embrace it eagerly does so.

Then again, it does takes a fine company to demonstrate just how much can be made of this evergreen relic of Imperial Russia, and South Florida is singularly fortunate in that such an engaging, delightful, flat-out excellent version of the work is mounted season after Christmas season by Marie Hale's Ballet Florida.

Tuesday night's performance of The Nutcracker showed again why this production of Tchaikovsky's final ballet has been for cherished for years, and richly deserves it. Here is a Nutcracker that takes the full opportunity presented by E.T.A. Hoffman's strange, magical story to explore costume, color, special effects and inventive choreography that is always moving, never static.

In crafting her reading of the show, Hale has not lost sight of the essential whimsy of this scenario, a whimsy that appeals on a fundamental gee-whiz level to children and to adult viewers who willingly open a door marked "Dazzle." Amid the wonderful bits of showmanship -- the silver swan carriage that floats in from the rafters, a flying carpet that rolls in for the divertissements of Act II, the fall of glittery snow on the stage and then the audience at the end of Act I -- there is in the Ballet Florida production other basic things that make the presentation so successful.

Chief among them are the impressive color coordination of lighting, costume and scenery, so that each tableau has its own distinct, memorable tint, and the overall spit-and-polish precision of every person on stage down to the tiniest dancer. One gets the sense of a unified production that knows where it is going, what it is doing, and is confident it can charm the socks off its audience.

All this would be less than the sum of its parts, though, if the principal dancers were less than striking. But they are first-rate, from the sinuous, slow-motion acrobatics of Lorena Jimenez and Tracy Mozingo in the Arabian dance to the fresh athleticism of Yuan Xi and Mauricio Canete as Clara and her prince, to the regal work of Mifa Ko and Gary Lenington as the snow queen and king. Each of the other soloists -- Tina Martin and Shannon Smith as the dewdrop and her cavalier, Marife Gimenez and Douglas Gawriljuk as the sugar plum fairy and her cavalier, and Deborah Marquez as the chief bon-bon -- was every bit as accomplished.

But ultimately the best thing about these dancers is how well their solo turns topped off and extended the overall quality of the show itself, and of the entire company, which had few noticeable weak spots: The wind that accompanies the flying carpet is perhaps not the best idea, since it drowns out the opening of the Arabian dance, and the tree in the Silberhaus home slithered rather than climbed as it grew.

But these are very minor points. Overall, the magic works on stage and it informs the whole production with a sense of playfulness and beauty that makes this Nutcracker perhaps the most consistently enjoyable and effective that I've ever seen. (Perhaps some day there will be a live orchestra in the pit, which would make it even more festive.)

The Canadian writer Robertson Davies once recommended a book by Max Beerbohm for reading on Christmas, and closed with the advice that if you can "creep away for a couple hours on the Great Day (to read it), there can be no doubt whatever about the merriment of your Christmas." I'd like to borrow a version of that peroration for this review: Get a chance to see Ballet Florida's Nutcracker, and you're guaranteed to add to your holiday joy.

Ballet Florida's 17th annual performances of The Nutcracker continue at 7 p.m. today (Christmas Day), 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 1 p.m. Sunday. At the Kravis Center, West Palm Beach. Tickets: $20-$75. Call 659-2000 or 832-7469 for tickets or more information, or visit www.balletflorida.org or www.kravis.org.

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