Review: ‘The Nutcracker’ by the Cincinnati Ballet at The Kennedy Center

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We know the holiday season is upon us when theaters around the country begin to put on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s classic The Nutcracker. The Cincinnati Ballet’s production at The Kennedy Center, conducted by Carmon DeLeone, brings us this timeless work with the help of dazzling visual effects.

'The Nutcracker' with the Cincinnati Ballet at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Peter Mueller.

‘The Nutcracker’ with the Cincinnati Ballet at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Peter Mueller.

 The ballet opens with preparations for a grand Christmas party. Servants set up the feast (and get into the sherry) with supervision by the chef (Michael Mengden), while young boys of the house run around making mischief. When the party is in full swing and presents are being handed to delighted children, young Clara (Sophia Rose Beadle) receives a special gift from her mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer (Oğulcan Borova): a Nutcracker, which she immediately adores. After the guests leave, Clara continues to play with her newest toy—until she is interrupted by a group of mice, led by the Mouse King (Rodrigo Almarales). The toys in the house come to life and, with the help of Clara’s Nutcracker (Taylor Carrasco), the mice are defeated. Clara and her Nutcracker, who is magically transformed into a prince, are free to set off for an adventure to the Land of Sweets, where many wonders await.

This production, choreographed by Victoria Morgan and staged by Johanna Bernstein Wilt and Oğulcan Borova, offers many moments of charm and beauty. The dances of the Sugar Plum Fairy with her Cavalier (Chisako Oga and Cervilio Miguel Amador) left audiences breathless. The dance of the Snow Queen and King (Maizyalet Velázquez and Patric Palkens), aided by lighting and sound creations by designers John Ezell and Trad A. Burns, was nothing short of magical. The Land of Sweets introduced soon afterwards is a place well worthy of children’s dreams: with colorful costumes by Carrie Robbins, wig and makeup design by James Geier, and magic effects by Sean Owens, this land becomes a place of wonder.

At times, however, it seemed as though moments like these were drowned out by the sheer volume of things that the choreographer and stagers tried to pack into the story. Additions such as Clara’s imaginary poodle (Carmyn Lee), and short-lived servant characters who did little other than generate a few laughs from the audience, made some of the earlier parts of the ballet feel rushed. And when all of these elements, including the servants, appeared for the battle against the mouse army, the sequence mostly appeared as a muddle of elements rather than a climactic showdown between the toys and the mice. In particular, giving the mice elements of hip-hop choreography while also making them into slapstick characters (hitting each other over the head with spoons, for example) felt a bit over-the-top.

The second act is a feast for the eyes: Russian dancers, a Chinese dancer fighting against a dragon puppet, all set in the Sugar Plum Fairy’s confectionary palace. But while some of these moments were excellent, others, such as the giant moving chicken with little chicks inside, kept the focus too much on the visual effects rather than the dance. This production also relegated Clara and the Nutcracker Prince to the background—they share a very brief dance at the end of the first act and do not dance at all in the second act, becoming mere observers in favor of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Snow Queen. This is a change to the traditional story that may not bother some, as the production certainly has stunning dance sequences to offer in its stead.

While it departs from what diehard Nutcracker fans may be familiar with, the Cincinnati Ballet’s production attempts to find ways to charm and surprise audiences more than a hundred years after it was first written. And in many ways, it succeeds, offering us an enchanting taste of the holiday season to come.

'The Nutcracker' with the Cincinnati Ballet at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Peter Mueller.

‘The Nutcracker’ with the Cincinnati Ballet at The Kennedy Center. Photo by Peter Mueller.

The cast of dancers features some changes/substitutions for each performance.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Cincinnati Ballet: The Nutcracker plays Friday, November 25 through Sunday, November 27, 2016, at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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