The unexpected ice storm raised hell with Texas Ballet Theater’s two-week Nutcracker run in Dallas’ Winspear Opera House. The last four performances had to be cancelled, poking a hole in the company’s already-tight budget, and the skimpy audience that greeted the dancers on opening night well before the blizzard hit certainly didn’t help.
Fort Worth performances started last weekend in Bass Performance Hall with friendlier weather and a full house and will continue through Dec. 27.
This is the production that TBT unveiled last year, a mix of artistic director Ben Stevenson’s familiar choreography with sumptuous new scenery, costumes, and special effects. Visually it’s a stunner. As the curtain came down on opening night, one audience member seated nearby said, “I’ve been going to Nutcrackers for over 70 years, and this is the prettiest one I’ve ever seen.”
The most engaging additions are the flying sequences: a soaring angel and a great swan-shaped brass sleigh carrying little Clara and the Cavalier off to the Land of Sweets and an Arabian couple who arrive on a luxurious daybed that circles the stage as it descends and debark to perform a sensuous Middle Eastern dance. Not to be outdone, two Chinese dancers fall from the fly loft on swing seats to begin their routine.
Stevenson is still tinkering with the production. He dropped the prologue that had been delivered in front of a scrim during the overture that brings Clara and her father to the wizard Drosselmeyer’s shop to buy Christmas gifts, and he has restored his parade of guests slipping and sliding on the ice on their way to the first-act party.
Opening-night performances in the two cities were remarkably different. The Dallas version seemed subdued, even tentative at times, as the dancers appeared to be concentrating more on getting things right than stepping out to express themselves. In Fort Worth they appeared more relaxed and full of energy. There were bright moments in Dallas, to be sure. In the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux finale, Leticia Oliveira crossed the stage in a jaw-dropping series of fiery double-turns on pointe that brought down the house, and Thomas Kilps tore up the stage in the Russian dance. But the evening’s total effect was restrained and workmanlike.
A case in point was Betsy McBride and Alexander Kotelenets dancing the Snow Queen and Prince pas de deux, an exposed, classical duet that seemed labored and uneventful in their run-through. Conversely, in Fort Worth they performed the leads in the Waltz of the Flowers with all of the exuberance and technical savvy that you could ask for, with McBride giving the most joyous performance I’ve seen from her.
And she had some competition from where I was sitting. A little girl, maybe 3 years old, started fussing across from me, and her father stood her up in the aisle. She started moving around, mimicking the dancers onstage, raising her arms overhead and doing circles until she got dizzy. This lasted until the beginning of the Sugar Plum Fairy duet, when the father finally scooped her up and took her to the back of the hall. I wondered where the ushers were.
In Fort Worth, Carolyn Judson danced the Sugar Plum Fairy, and while her bravura work wasn’t as riveting as Oliveira’s, her adagio dancing was splendid. The ballerina’s languid style traced musical lines with graceful, drifting arms, and she seemed to float across the stage in the strong lifts and slow-motion descents supplied by her partner, Lucas Priolo, whose strong and elegant solos matched her refined technique step for step. It was pure classical ballet, its roots going back to Russia’s old Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg. How lucky TBT is to have dancers who can remind us of where it all started.
Oliveira, in a change of pace, took on the sensuous Arabian dance, partnered by her husband, Carl Coomer. Masterful in character work as well as classical roles, the sultry seductress came to life in a low-key, exotic performance. Coomer’s role was mostly limited to lifting and supporting his partner in unusual overhead positions, and he did well in the thankless job.
Paul Adams was an engaging Drosselmeyer: not very sinister but excellent in making things appear and disappear as he entertained the guests in the party scene.
Sound technicians have finally hit on a pleasing level for the recording of Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score in Bass Hall, but a live orchestra, of course, would be preferable. In a promising first step back toward normal, TBT’s season-closing performances of Swan Lake will feature live musicians.
In true repertory style, Nutcracker dancers will rotate assignments during the run. On Friday TBT will put on its annual Nutty Nutcracker, an always hotly anticipated parody of current events loosely housed in Nutcracker clothes.
Texas Ballet Theater’s The Nutcracker
Thru Fri, Dec 27, in Bass Performance Hall, 555 Commerce St, FW. $30-128. 817-828-9200.