Philadelphia Ballet is one of just a few US dance companies licensed to perform George Balanchine’s 1954 minted version of The Nutcracker and a week into their extended run at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, the production looks better than ever, a showcase for the whole company from principal dancers to students from the company’s dance school.
Les Dickert’s precision lighting design enhances Peter Horne’s drawing room cum atrium set designs and Judanna Lynne’s beautifully enchanting period costumes in the gilded 19th century opera house environs of the Academy.
All of the production elements in Act I enhance Balanchine’s ritualized template in of The Nutcracker’s enduring appeal, however brushed up by Balanchine’s neoclassicism, can still lumber along as the adults and children pantomime old-world rituals at a Christmas holiday gathering. But subtle refinements in the pacing of these scene by artistic director Angel Corella and his production team, notably. Jamie Santoro, (Children’s Ballet Stager) and PB’s ballet school director Davit Karapetyan has animated the children’s cast to a new level of immersive artistry.
As Fritz Casey J. Davis is full of party mischief, darting around the guests and taunting his sister Marie played by Cailyn Talley, both are good actor-dancers with magnetic presence. Sterling Baca brings both wit and warmth as Herr Drosselmeier the mysterious guest who entertains the children and presents Marie with the Nutcracker doll, igniting her dream of a Prince. Baca often dances romantic roles and is proving a strong character dancer as well. IIya Beck also a standout as the courtly Nephew and the Nutcracker Prince.
The first magical dance in Act I performed by Jorge Garcia Alonso who turned the two-minute tin-soldier virtuosity, a contra-limb flat footed tour de force solo. Also making the most of dance minimalism en pointe as danced by Fernanda Oliveira and Lucia Erickson in the mirroring dances as Harlequin & Columbine.
When the party ends and Marie goes to sleep she dreams of a Nutcracker Prince come to life and dreams of him battling, along with the children’s brigade, the Mouse King, and his mousey minions. Then Marie is spirited away to the Land of the Sweets but not before a stop in the woods with the blizzard of ballerina Snowflakes, a dazzling display of Balanchine’s choreographic ensemble precision and esprit de corps, all the more dynamic with the Philadelphia Boys Choir serenading vocalese from the Academy stage boxes.
Among the highlights in the Land of the Sweets divertissements’:
Yuka Iseda makes the Arabian Coffee a subtler but no less seductive solo of Balanchine’s harem vamp. Siobhan Howley and Yuval Cohen lead the Spanish Hot Chocolate Dance, Corella sharpening the flamenco(esque) choreography by Balanchine with more Seville fire.
The ‘Tea’ dance has been stripped of its more offensive ‘oriental’ tropes, and much for the better- . Gone are the offensive gestures and subservient costumes. Ashton Roxander with partners Madelin Winters and Ava DiEmedio present ‘Tea’ Ashton Roxander out of a giftbox so he can fly into aerial splits and scissoring battlement.
Thays Golz leads Marzipan Shepherdesses quintet with Jacqueline Callahan, Gabriela Mesa, Erin Patterson, Julia Vinez- This ensemble’s quicksilver pointe work fleet and charming. Demi-soloist Isaac Hollis brought the house with his breezy precision and exuberance in the Candy Canes dance (a role that Balanchine danced when he was a lead character dancer in the Tsar’s Imperial Ballet.
And soloist Alexandra Heier brought fire and ice as Dewdrop with glittering arabesque variations and turn, capped off with air-slicing grand jetes, moving in and around the corps de ballet Flowers, who nailed the fluid dynamics of Balanchine’s geometric canon lines.
.The finale with Sugar Plum Fairy Dayesi Torriente and her Cavalier Arian Molina Soca looked a bit off pace in the opening moments of their central pas de deux. Torriente delivering vibrant diamond pointe work. But after their solo passages, they flew into sync after their solo passages. Soca airy jetes circling the Academy stage with breezy sharpness, then tossing off steel centered pirouettes.
The other aspect that captivates throughout the Philadelphia Ballet’s Nutcracker is Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra under the direction of Beatrice Jona Affron. Affron is a Tchaikovsky specialist and the orchestra’s performance on this night- from the thrilling rhythmic drive, the precision orchestra balance, the translucent sound-world engulfing the rafters of the Academy. Affron sculpts all its glittering symphonic dimensions in the Academy. Among the outstanding soloists- violinist Tess Varley and harpist Mindy Cutcher, flutists Edward Schultz and Elissa Brown.