|| The Patriot Ledger
|| December 5, 2013
|| Iris Fanger
In Boston at holiday time, as around the world, nothing means Christmas as much as the nearly 50-year tradition of "The Nutcracker." While there are countless productions throughout the region, all of them with delights of their own, the Boston Ballet's is the most elaborate, with more performances and the only live ballet orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's beloved score.
Now fielding rotating casts of more than 250 children and the full company of professionals alternating in different roles, the Boston Ballet will present 43 performances before the dancers collapse in a heap just before New Year's Eve. And that's not to mention the year-old sets and costumes by Robert Perdziola, which are even more sumptuous than remembered from last year's premiere.
Artistic director Mikko Nissinen has recreated portions of the choreography each year and can now truly claim the entire ballet (based on the 19th-century Russian original by Lev Ivanov) as his own. This year Nissinen staged a new Act I battle scene between the mice and the soldiers, led by the Nutcracker Prince, featuring more detail and more action. The mice have multiplied in number, and some of them have grown more menacing as adults in the furry suits. The red-coated soldiers have been smartly trained as a corps, stepping in precise formation for the attack. Most winning is the way the mice enter: They freeze into comic, scary postures when Clara wakes up to find them looming around her. The humor of their antics, complete with emotional gestures, contrasts with the more classical choreography for the snowflakes that follows, enhanced by Perdziola's scenic vision of a white birch forest glimpsed through the falling snow.
At the press opening night Friday, the company was led by Misa Kuranaga as Sugar Plum Fairy, partnered by Jeffrey Cirio as both her Cavalier and the Nutcracker Prince. This partnership is one to be treasured, both for their chemistry together and their singular talents as technically assured performers. The grand pas de deux at the end of the two-hour-long ballet often comes as an afterthought, given the visual delights that have stunned the audience and exhausted the ready-for-bed children, but not this time. Kuranaga and Cirio came on stage at the top of their impressive forms to thrill the viewers with his high jumps and perfect landings and her inventive ways to swirl around in the fouettes (the devilish ballet move that has the ballerina turning endlessly on one toe while whipping the other leg around.)
Lia Cirio (Jeffrey's brother - both are principal dancers) and Lasha Khozashvili made an elegant pair as Snow Queen and King. They will appear later in the run as Sugar Plum and Cavalier. Ashley Ellis completed the triumvirate of ballerinas as Dew Drop Fairy, wafting through space as if mere gravity could not keep her toes on the ground. Sea Hye Han and Anais Cholendard headed the troupe of flowers following Dew Drop's lead.
A charming Boston Ballet School student, Eliza French, danced her way through the role of Clara as if inspired, never dropping character or missing a step. In case you miss the metaphor, Clara is not only a young girl on the brink of growing up and leaving home but also a ballerina in training, taking Sugar Plum Fairy as her teacher. Clara receives toe shoes in her gift box in Act I, rather than the traditional doll. The entire production is masterminded by Herr Drosselmeier, played on opening night by Braintree resident Sabi Varga. He's a vaudevillian with long, spider-like legs, having fun with his ego as a magician, but also creating a faintly disturbing presence. His wife, Melanie Atkins, serves as the children's ballet mistress, making the Boston Ballet production a family affair. Others in the inspired cast included a seductive company newcomer, the Italian-born Petra Conti, with arms as fluid as lengths of ribbon, in the role of an Arabian slave, and Isaac Akiba as a high-bouncing ball of a Russian dancer.
Even if you have no children, you should treat yourself to this annual holiday affair. Nissinen, Perdziola and Jonathan McPhee, conductor of the orchestra, have fashioned an experience for ballet fans who love the trappings of Christmas, and take pride in this supreme achievement of our hometown troupe.
THE NUTCRACKER Boston Ballet, Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston. through Dec. 29, $39-$169. www.bostonballet.org.