Nutcracker Review: An unfortunate faux pas (de deux)

by Nicholas Siennicki

The Nutcracker is undoubtedly an iconic ballet. For many, it is the only ballet they see, and for others, it is a yearly tradition that captures all the beauty and grace of an ephemeral art form that people might consider somewhat above them. It is vital, then, for The Nutcracker to be as accessible as possible for all viewers. After all, for those of us who love the ballet, wasn’t this the first show we attended? Almost everyone knows Tchaikovsky’s wonderfully energetic and pizzicato themes, as is the story.

The Nutcracker’s format and ‘plot’ is perfectly structured for amateur ballet enthusiasts, as you get both the visual spectacle of watching amazing dancers effortlessly execute seemingly impossible moves with grace, and experience some fun costumes, interesting plotting, and character interaction. For those unfamiliar with the show, it is split up into two acts. The first details a Christmas party, during which a girl receives a Nutcracker from a strange, but kind Uncle. There’s socializing, partying, and a general plethora of cute festive spirit. Then at night, the girl is transported, along with her toy, to a land where mice and nutcrackers fight, and after some faux death-related hijinks, Clara, the girl, and the nutcracker end up traveling to the Land of Sweets, where, in the second act, a slew of interesting characters perform specialized dances for them.

The reason this set up is so strong for a ‘first’ ballet is because you get eased into sitting and watching individuals flex their dancing ability by having a humorous and entertaining preamble, replete with fanciful interpretations of traditional costumes, spectacle, and an all out battle between mice and men. Of course, when the dancing numbers do come, people are meant to be gripped by the sheer excellence of gorgeous movements, almost like a dream of the impossible.

They are not, however, supposed to actually doze off.

I personally have attended Alberta Ballet’s interpretation of The Nutcracker three times, and unfortunately, this was by far the blandest production I have attended. Now, it may seem that I’m exaggerating the sluggishness and stilted nature of this performance, but upon polling some of my friends, who were a mix of first-time goers and Russian ballet enthusiasts, they all seemed to generally agree that this interpretation of The Nutcracker left a lot to be desired. One of the best things about the ballet is how effortless everything is supposed to look. Quick, graceful movements and gravity-defying jumps that leave people thinking “how is that even possible”. This performance didn’t have the same effect. Movements seemed laborious, the leaps and jumps low to the ground, and the pointe-work uninspired. I can’t say whether the dancing was dull because the dancers were unable to perform more complicated maneuvers, or whether it was because Edmund Stripe’s choreography was woefully uninspired, but it ultimately doesn’t matter. Maybe this wouldn’t have been as noticeable if The Sugar Plum Fairy had performed a mind-blowing routine, but boy, was she the low-light of the entire production. Her parts seemed to involve more ambling around the stage than set moves, and the ‘show-stopper’ Grand Jetés that uninformed ballet goers all associate with the pinnacle of the art-form were rather sub-par.

That said, it could have been an off-day, and it’s evident that the dancer herself is a figure of immense physical and mental prowess. The show-stealers, for me, were clearly the Arabian Dancers, who had the most interesting routine and the most opportunity to flex their skills. The Choreography also reflected their ‘region’ the best, as the male Russian Dancers, and Chinese Ribbon Dancers, although having interesting solos, seemed a little too non-descript. The Sugar Plum Fairy’s partner had a good and entertaining solo as well, and of all performers, he had the most well expressed joyous air- he seemed to really love what he was doing. The costuming and set-design was adequate: interesting and bedazzling enough, but nothing new or exceptional. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra was fantastic as always, and did a good job with the music for the most part, some small mistakes and awkward pauses notwithstanding.

The most disappointing thing about this rendition of The Nutcracker is that I know that Alberta Ballet can do better. I’ve seen them do better, and I’ve seen them have more fire and energy in their performances. For example, in the previous two incarnations of The Nutcracker, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo really did hit the mark for show-stopping beauty, in that it was grand, epic, and strangely intimate. Her movements in those performances were silky, but with a sort of lively quickness to them that really complimented the grandiose movements of some really unique and visually spectacular move-sets.

Which I guess is why I’m coming down on this performance so harshly. It isn’t because it was bad in the sense that it was rife with mistakes, stumbles, or confusion. Really, for the most part, all the extremely talented Dancers performed with smiles on their faces, grace, and never fumbled to the point of breaking immersion. Nobody fell, nobody bumped into each other. So ultimately, as disappointed as I may have been, this performance was not bad. It was just boring. But, of course, a night at the ballet is so much more than just a mind-blowing performance. It’s a celebration of the arts and of human potential. It’s making sure that your local city can continue to support and fund theatre in all of its forms. It’s an excuse to dress up in your Sunday best and barrage your senses with opulence (shout out to the wine and cakes the Jubilee had on sale, they were delicious).

Perhaps Alberta Ballet’s next show will impress more. They certainly have had a great line-up, and I’m personally most excited for ‘Cinderella’, playing March 23-24. I’m a sucker for the classics. It might be safe to assume that this show was a hiccup in an otherwise solid season, so if a night out at the theatre sounds like a lovely time to you, don’t let one bad show or one opinion ruin that!

Photography courtesy of Alberta Ballet.

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