As a fan of dance and ballet, I have seen a number of professional productions of The Nutcracker over the years, but this particular performance by the Metropolitan Ballet Theatre is going to stick with me. Like all of the performances I have seen, the company had talented, strong dancers that wowed me with every leap and pirouette. However, the aspect that pushed this show over the top for me was that the ballet school transforms this opportunity into a learning experience for both the dancers, and the audience members.
With music by Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky and choreography by Elizabeth Odell Catlett, Katerina Rodgaard, and Tyrone C. Walker, after Marius Petipa, the story follows young Clara through three major scenes. First we meet her at the Stahlbaum Home, where her family is hosting a Christmas party, and where her grandfather presents her with the magical toy nutcracker. As night goes on, the children have to go to bed, and Clara falls asleep next to the Christmas tree with her nutcracker. She enters a dream state in which the Nutcracker comes to life, and together they visit the Land of Snowflakes and the Kingdom of Sweets, and meet a variety of characters along the way including the Snow Queen and the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The performance was entertaining, and beautiful to watch unfold from start to finish. However, in addition to appreciating the beauty, much of the full house audience was there to learn. The performance I attended was one of three “Patch Days,” which are designed to help Girl Scouts obtain their “Nutcracker Patch.” Following the show, the company led a talk back in order to educate the Girl Scouts on the history of The Nutcracker, and explain certain aspects of what they had seen, such as the music and choreography. The Metropolitan Ballet Theatre has found an enriching way to engage with the community, and that made sitting amongst this particular audience feel even more rewarding.
However, the community engagement did not stop there. The company also found ways to help their own cast members learn more about their community through the role of Mother Ginger. For each performance, the company brought in a guest artist, such as Gaithersburg-Germantown Chamber of Commerce official Marilyn Balcombe, and Maryland State Senator Nancy King, who played the role in the performance I saw. The casting choice allowed the arts and political scenes of the DC area to collide, and this made for a fascinating lens through which to view the performance.
Set and costume design made the stage aesthetically striking. With costumes led by Laura Baxter, Elizabeth Catlett, Jennifer Hausdofer, and Tracie Strucker, and scenic design led by Elizabeth Catlett, Ryan Catlett, and Jay Reilly, the set consisted of a backdrop that changed depending the location, which ranged from a mansion for the Christmas party to an extravagant castle full of candy in the Kingdom of Sweets. However, the one of the most interesting parts was the enormous Christmas tree. This structure dominated the stage at the top of the play, and was complete with ornaments and a glowing star at the top. This alone was impressive, but that which surprised me was once Clara entered her dream, the tree lifted, as if to reveal a journey past the three into a magical realm, which brought us into the Land of Snowflakes.
The beauty of the design for the Land of Snowflakes only enhanced the impressive transition, and the scene that followed. The backdrop was simple, and was a painting of snowy mountaintops. The Snow Queen (Neva Modric) danced wonderfully, and her grace made the movements look almost easy. The costume design team placed her, as well as the ensemble of Snowflake dancers in white dresses, which emphasized the feel of a winter wonderland. I remember thinking the scene could not get any more beautiful, and then snow began to fall from the ceiling above the stage. The scene transformed into a snow globe-like image, with the dancers moving around the Snow Queen amongst the snowy mountains, and it was a sight to see.
The Nutcracker would be nothing without talented dancers, and this production succeeded. However, that which pushed the dancers’ performances over the top was the stage presence. It was easy to see the enjoyment in each ensemble member’s face, and that made the show even more enjoyable to watch, particularly in a couple specific moments.
The ensemble of children at the Christmas Party in Act One were adorable, especially in the young boy dance with the toy trumpets, and the young girl dance with the teddy bears. The choreography was fun, but more than that, the stage presence and acting was spot-on.
The Flowers at the party in Act II were absolutely beautiful with their choreography, and the graceful movements matched what could easily be flowers dancing in the wind. Meredith Hwang as the Due Drop was fantastic, and I was blown away by the smooth flow of her movements. She led the group of Flowers across the floor and it was fascinating to watch them move as one unit.
Clara (Victoria Chai) portrayed a sweet character with a sense of curiosity and adventure, and her duets with Nutcracker (Gavin Stewart) were incredible. Stewart danced with a strength and stage presence that would constantly catch my eye, whether he was dancing a solo, or with another, such as the Sugar Plum Fairy (Sarah Danaceau), another dancer whose talent amazed me. I was enthralled during the duet between Stewart and Danaceau with their talent and stage chemistry.
Breathtaking, fascinating, and thought-provoking, The Metropolitan Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker was a joy from start to finish. They should be proud of the work they produce with their students, and I look forward to seeing their future productions.
The Nutcracker closed on Sunday, December 13, 2015 at the Robert E Parilla Performing Arts Center at Montgomery College, Rockville Campus – 51 Manakee Street, in Rockville, MD. To learn more about their future performances,go to their website.