Be prepared to be dazzled.
When this reviewer spotted hundreds of young children, mostly girls 3 to 16 in pretty party dresses, swarming through the lobby of George Mason University’s Center for the Arts last evening, I braced myself for an evening of petty annoyances.
Throughout the evening, you could have heard a pin drop – when the audience wasn’t applauding wildly. Both children and adults sat in open-mouthed awe at the amazing magic onstage.
The only time a child broke the spell of the moment occurred during the Second Act when one character kissed another.
“Ew!” said an impetuous young voice from down in front.
The entire audience giggled.
Like the groundhog and the Easter Bunny that foretell the coming of Spring, many Americans of a certain age have grown up expecting to see a Nutcracker ballet every Christmas.
George Balanchine revitalized the then 75-year old ballet scored by Tchaikovsky in the late 1960s. It is now one of the most popular ballets in the U.S.
We’ve gotten accustomed to seeing the Nutcracker Prince and Masha watch from a throne as dancers representing Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, and Candy Canes pirouette before them. For some, it has become a “children’s ballet.”
This is a different Nutcracker.
Its appeal spans the generations.
It is a robust, lively and suspenseful production with a strong, sweet Russian flavor. Another surprise is always around the corner.
This production by the Moscow Ballet is so popular, there are two complete casts. One tours the East Coast, the other visits the West Coast states. In this area, the ballet will be performed at Baltimore’s Hippodrome tomorrow on December 19th and twice on December 20th. You can buy tickets here.
The adult dancers in Great Russian Nutcracker, more than 40 in the cast including principals and Corps de Ballet, are members of the Moscow Ballet.
Another 37 cast members were young girls who auditioned early in September for small dance-on roles in the show. Though the majority (27) are from the Gift of Dance Academy, other schools represented included Avery Ballet (3), The Dance Spot (1), Metropolitan School of the Arts (1), Ballet Academy of Warrenton (1), M&S Studio (1), and Richmond/Essex School of Performing Arts (2).
These girls provided the “Awwww, how cute!” portions of the show. Despite their young age, they carried their minor roles as Russians, Snow Maidens, Mice, Snow Flakes, and Party participants with aplomb. The inclusion of student dancers in Moscow Ballet productions is part of the company’s longtime “side-by-side” education program.
For this production, Tchaikovsky’s iconic music is a recording. However, the sound system at the Performing Arts Center is excellent: you could hear every scape of a violinist’s bow. It truly sounded as if a full orchestra was hidden somewhere onstage.
In this production directed by ballet master Anna Nekhludova, the costumes are exquisite. Many are dusted with sparkling jewels and rhinestones. The costumes were not from any one period, rather details were gleaned from festive garb from the 1780s to the 1890s – pants and knee breeches mingled in the same party scenes.
Created by Arthur Oliver, they are works of art, tailored to each individual adult cast member’s body. In the party scenes, many of the males – and there are a LOT of males in this show – wore expertly cut tailcoats that highlighted their trim, athletic physiques.
The men’s barely opaque tights delineated their long, toned muscular legs and firm, chiseled buttocks.
The set design by Valentin Federov gave the impression of space and depth to the stage, though these illusions were an intriguing series of painted opaque and sheer screens. The show’s first screens are painted with scenes suggesting a gift workshop and an outside, snow enveloped image of the colorful onion domes of Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral.
The classic scene where the Christmas tree grows to an enormous height was achieved by pulling one screen depicting a decorated fir tree up over another.
In the second act, a single screen appears to be painted with a variety of jungle animals in front of a colonnade. Yet, the colonnade continually changes color as the mood of the show shifts. Eventually, the animals are whisked away, revealing the colonnade as a separate screen.
When the show opens, Uncle Drosselmeyer (Mikhail Mikhailov) is preparing toys for a Christmas party. There is a Harlequin Doll (Ivan Melentiev), a pair of Moor Dolls (Sergey Chumakov and Elena Petrichenko), Kissy Doll (Oiuna Nadmitova) in her pleated ballerina skirt and the Nutcracker Doll (Rafael Urazov). The Nutcracker is for Masha (Ekaterina Bortiakova), not her pesky brother Fritz (Sergei Popov).
The Nutcracker gets broken and Masha is heartbroken. When she falls asleep, the Mouse King (Eugenii Rudakov) and his legion of mice scamper over the stage – most played by the young student dancers. During the ensuing fight, the Nutcracker Doll becomes the Nutcracker Prince (Artem Belov). Led by the blue robed Ded Muroz and Snow Maiden, the prince and Masha travel to the Snow Forest and the Land of Peace and Harmony.
Act Two opened with a jaw-dropper.
A giant bird with a 20-foot wingspan appeared onstage, its wings curved around its lean body. Suddenly, the body breaks apart. It is two people, Sergey Chumakov and Elena Petrichenko, this time as the Dove of Peace. Each dancer has one featherlike wing, its length extended by a stick they each hold in one hand. What follows is an amazingly graceful yet vibrantly athletic dance as the duo twines and winds about each other.
Here, and throughout the show, the male dancers appear to effortlessly lift and hold aloft their female partners.
This couple returns later in the show as the Arabians. In American iteration, they would be Coffee. Both dressed in midriff baring costumes they perform an over-the-top routine combining ballsy gymnastics with ballet. Petrichenko is a rubber-limbed human pretzel; Chumakov is an incredibly gifted partner with a perfect sense of timing. Both sport an amazing set of abs.
It there is a scene stealer in this show, it is these two. They received the loudest, most sustained applause for their Dove and Arabian scenes.
The Russian Dancers, Vladimir Nikitin and Anastasiia Kochanova, also received loud applause for their interpretation of Cossack break-dancing.
Bortiakova and Belov, as Masha and the Prince, dance the classic scenes with powerful vibrancy and emotion. Bortiakova twirled like an electric top, aided by Belov, who supported her by tenderly caressing her waist, almost as if he were a potter shaping clay spinning upon a wheel.
The Corps de Ballet filled the stage in several scenes, massing with precise, graceful movement.
During this holiday season, The Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker is a gift that keeps on giving.
The Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker played on December 18 and 19, 2014 at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts-4373 Mason Pond Drive, in Fairfax, VA. For future events at The Center for the Arts, go to their calendar of events.