Milwaukee Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” an energized holiday traditionDecember 8th, 2012 |
I never tire of Michael Pink’s The Nutcracker, as I never tire of putting up a Christmas tree every year. The trees comfort in being about the same every year, but intrigue because they’re always a little different. Each tree has its peculiarities, and a few extra lights, some new ornaments and new placements of cherished ones ones keep the season bright.
Likewise in the Milwaukee Ballet’s Nutcracker, new dancers freshen familiar roles. At the opening Saturday matinee, for example, Janel Meindersee brought crystalline precision and clarity to the Snow Queen. Her pointed phrasing, bordering on staccato, made a bracing contrast with the gorgeous fluidity of the snowflake corps around her. And Mengjun Chen, in his first showcase MBC role, made the mischievous Fritz a little more exuberant and clueless — as compared with Marc Petrocci’s more devilish and conspiratorial Fritz. Chen is funny in his own way. He and Courtney Kramer, as Clara, his partner in bickering, interacted easily and genuinely as siblings and came up with some funny business new to the show.
(The Nutcracker cast rotates every day, and I didn’t know that Meindersee and Chen would dance these roles Saturday afternoon. As it happens, I interviewed them about Fritz and Snow Queen a few days ago. Do read the interview; they’re very charming.)
Nicole Teague, a little darter who has danced such roles as little brother Michael in Pink’s Peter Pan and Clara in Nutcrackers past, got the star turn Saturday as older sister Marie. In Pink’s smart narrative, Marie dances the Sugar Plum pas de deux with the Nutcracker Prince/Karl as a public affirmation of their matured love. All the choreography is Pink’s except this pas de deux, where he adheres to classical tradition as handed down from Marius Petipa.
The Milwaukee Ballet hasn’t done much in the way of classical ballet, and I don’t recall Teague dancing anything remotely like Sugar Plum before and she had her ups and downs. She had the advantage of Ryan Martin, a strong, attentive and reliable partner; Teague looked perfectly happy and safe during the big lifts. She showed excellent balance and line in the supported turns on pointe. Though secure at the start of her unsupported poses on toe, she got off them hastily. Their adagio went well until a bit of a tangle, quickly fixed, in finger turns near the end. The solo variations were terrific. Nothing went egregiously wrong in the coda, but Teague and Martin never quite settled into the musicality of it. Teague appeared far more comfortable — was downright radiant, actually — with Pink’s idiom in the blooming energy and soaring gestures of the young-love duet that precedes the Snow Scene in Act 1.
Pink’s Nutcracker does not hinge on a star turn. Rather, an unusually strong narrative drives an ensemble piece that shows off the company as a whole to great advantage. The entire cast Saturday pulled one for all to create a sweeping momentum studded with warm, human details, especially in the party scenes. Saturday, Petrocci turned in a gem as a slightly confused and comically assertive Grandfather. The tall, rangy Justin Genna, as Drosselmeyer, spiraled through the throng like an elegant tornado. Newcomer Timothy O’Donnell, as the party host and father of the three siblings, tilted the role a little more toward Dagwood Bumstead and made me laugh. He played opposite Rachel Malehorn, and the two of them returned in Act 2 for a notably haughty and fiery Spanish.
The Act 2 character dances — Raven Nielsen and David Hovhannisyan in the Arabian; Barry Molina leading the Chinese dragon; Alexandre Ferreira, Etienne Diaz and Erik Johnson as the tumbling, clowning Jacks; Shepherdess Susan Gartell leading her little geese — were as sultry, hilarious and charming as ever. One of Pink’s most brilliant moves, by the way, was to get Fritz and Clara to interact with the character dances and with the Waltz of the Flowers. That keeps the narrative alive and allows them to develop their relationship. Their growth from bitter antagonists to dear brother and sister is important to the story arc.
Conductor Pasquale Laurino led a secure Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra. His well-chosen tempos paced the show neatly and gave the dancers the impetus they need.
Many children from the Milwaukee Ballet School participate in this Nutcracker, and they don’t just stand around and look cute. Every last one of them danced with energy and purpose. Their impressive awareness, as much as their competence with the steps, contributed a great deal to the success of the opening performance of this Nutcracker run.
The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 26 at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. See the full schedule and purchase tickets online ($30 to $78) or call 414-273-7206.
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