Ballet West brings its shiny new “Nutcracker” to the Kennedy Center

Thu Dec 06, 2018 at 2:07 pm

Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell in Ballet West’s production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center. Photo: Luke Isley

‘Tis the season for the annual run of The Nutcracker in the Kennedy Center Opera House. This is the area’s only performances of this evergreen ballet this year with full staging and live music, down to the magical children’s choir in the snow scene. In the venue’s rotation of prominent American companies, Ballet West was back Wednesday night with its classic version of Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous score, based on the country’s first-ever complete Nutcracker.

Made by Willam F. Christensen for San Francisco Ballet, this Nutcracker has been lovingly tended by the Utah dance company. You may have seen it during Ballet West’s most recent visits to the Kennedy Center, in 2012 and 2014, in the version restored by Adam Sklute, the company’s artistic director since 2007. You may not recognize it, however, since this 30-year-old production underwent a $3 million facelift last year.

One thing that has not changed is Ballet West’s Sugar Plum Fairy, principal artist Beckanne Sisk. She floated light and airy through the famous entrée in the pas de deux, accompanied by that striking duet of celesta and bass clarinet. She was partnered this time by the exceptionally long-limbed Cavalier of Chase O’Connell, a reminder of Sklute’s avowed love of tall dancers. When O’Connell lifted Sisk, he did so with confidence and ease, and she held herself with strength in the air, as if unweighted by gravity.

Other star dancers round out the major roles, including Emily Adams as a noble and graceful Snow Queen. The sequence of variations in the second act featured rising dancers, none more attractively than first soloist Katlyn Addison, who slinked through the Arabian variation, all long legs and sinuous arms. Tyler Gum showed bounteous energy as both the Mouse King and the lead dancer in the Chinese variation.

Most of the sentimental aspects of Ballet West’s Nutcracker, part of what has made it so popular, remain in place. Drosselmeyer, played with a mixture of cryptic menace and good humor by Beau Pearson (apart from a slip and hard fall during the lead-up to the battle scene), sets in motion two automatons in the opening Christmas scene. The first is a charmingly clunky ballerina (the lovely Sayaka Ohtaki), and the second a dancing bear (Vinicius Lima), given a costume makeover (designs by David Heuvel) to be a little more chunky and cute.

Photo: Beau Pearson

Heuvel’s costumes and the handsome new scenic designs by John Wayne Cook shift the action back from the Victorian period, where Christensen cast it, to the time of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story in the early 19th century. Technical bells and whistles jazz up the staging, including projections on backdrops (designed by Mike Tutaj) that illuminate Christmas ornaments, produce animated snow, and make wisps of smoke pass over the video Christmas tree ballooning to gigantic size. As a big finish, Clara and the Nutcracker Prince leave the stage at the end of Act II on a flying sleigh.

Some aspects of the new design seem impressive but perhaps unnecessary, like the street tableau in the opening of Act I and the puppet show that opens Act II, both glimpsed only for a few moments. It may have been more worthwhile to update some of the choreography instead, admirably classical but sometimes static and old-fashioned, as in the Waltz of the Flowers and Dance of the Snowflakes. Drosselmeyer’s sorcerous flash effect and the heart-stopping boom of the soldiers’ cannon in the battle scene can still jar some younger children in the house.

Ballet West music director Jared Oaks led a generally strong performance by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in the pit. Some ensemble issues cropped up in the first section of the second act, and it was quite hard to hear the Arlington Children’s Chorus in the snow scene, but some adjustment to the amplification can fix that.

Happily the grandfather clock, with its hooting glowing-eyed owl set in motion by Drosselmeyer’s wizardry, remains as the only set piece from the original Ballet West production. That relic of the past helps balance out other updated local references to the Beehive State, like the adorable bees who scurry out of Mother Buffoon’s skirts in Act II, and the imagery from the Great Salt Lake in the backdrop of the Land of the Sweets. Long may this Utah tradition flourish.

The Nutcracker runs through December 9.; 202-467-4600

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