There are certain things that start popping up everywhere to mark the Holiday season. Carols on the radio. Decorations on houses and main streets. (Objecting to the fact that both of these are happening closer to Halloween these days is a new tradition, but probably a lost cause.) Old favorite specials on TV. Theatrical productions of A Christmas Carol.
And then there is The Nutcracker. For many years, in many cities, little girls in velvet dresses have gone to tea with mothers, aunts, godmothers or other relations at their cities’ Grand Hotel and then to sit on velvet chairs in a gilded theater and enjoy the sweet story of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince. This is a rarer pleasure these days, because mounting a full-scale ballet, especially one as beloved and rich in tradition as this one, is a daunting task. Olney Ballet Theatre is up to the challenge.
OBT’s Nutcracker is a lavish, full-scale production mounted in the Historic Stage at Olney Theater Center. For anyone who has performed on that stage, it is miraculous that they can even find places to put some 60 dancers — it is difficult to tell exactly how many because they play so many different roles — as well as their myriad gorgeous costumes (thanks to Costume Mistress Lauren Tharp), as well as to direct traffic on and off stage (kudos to Green Room wranglers Jessica Eustace and Stephanie Bradshaw). But one would never know all this well-controlled chaos was happening by looking at the graceful and sumptuous result on stage.
This particular staging of the ballet was choreographed by the late Mary Day in 1961, originally for the Washington Ballet. It has been the crowning glory of the Olney Ballet Theatre for 12 years, under the care of Artistic Director Patricia Berrend. The staging is both disciplined and flexible, like the dancers themselves. Day’s production features dancers ranging in age from 4 to 18 years old; about 110 students participate in the ballet, but they alternate roles, to allow them to rest between performances, and to see the production when they are not dancing.
The company invites professional soloists from other companies to alternate in the most demanding roles, to give the pre-professional students an inspiring glimpse of what they hope to be one day. Rather than arranging her dancers in strict lines and having them move in perfect unison, as one might with a professional corps du ballet, Ms. Day gives them each something appropriate to their level of skill. Often the choreography has dancers doing the same movement in sequential groups, which is not only more interesting for the audience but helps minimize any small variations in technique.
The first act Christmas Party scene is particularly charming. The dancers, portraying visiting families, enter down the center aisle of the theater during the overture, and the children stop to have (mimed) snowball fights before being welcomed into the party. The student dancers in this scene are supplemented by parents and alumni of the company, making the party a true family event. There is as much acting as dancing going on; everywhere you look there is another little story being told, from Clara’s father (Runqiao Du) putting a pearl necklace under the tree for her mother (Erin Du), to the Grandmother (Jacalyn Cox or Robin Gilbert), swept up in the dancing but finding out she’s not a spry as she once was, to Drosselmeyer (the imposing Roger Bennet Riggle) correcting the time on the Grandfather clock — which actually moves.
Once the clock strikes midnight and the fabled tree begins to grow (fine pieces of stagecraft), the serious dancing begins. Clara helps her nutcracker defeat the Rat King, he transforms into a Prince, and they venture into the Snow Forest. All pretense of a plot is abandoned, but it is not missed as real snow begins to drift down from the flies and waltzing snowflakes grace the stage. It is here, and in the Act II Kingdom of the Sweets, that Ms. Day’s choreography comes into full flower. Each age cohort has their moment in the spotlight, from a line of sweet, tiny snow angels, to the famous Waltz of the Flowers, to the sinuous and exotic Coffee dancers (Brian Cordova and Maya Illanes, with Corissa Cordero and Brenda Welch) to the fully professional Grand Pas de Deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy (Jessica Tretter) and her Cavalier (John Demming).
But perhaps the single most charming moment belongs to the littlest of all — when Mother Gigogne (Kristin Cundick) arrives with her children, they are accompanied by the father-and-daughter team of Big Cook (Tarik Marshall) and tiny Little Cook (5-year-old Cassandra Marshall). Little Cook grabs a cooking bowl as big as she is, takes it down stage center, and sits, staring out at the audience with an intensely serious expression from behind a drawn-on mustache. It is a bit of a shame for the dancers working so hard behind her, because it is utterly impossible for the audience to take their eyes off this minuscule scene-stealer.
OBT’s Nutcracker is really a family endeavor. Many names appear over and over in the program – twin sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers work together, onstage and off, to make the fairy tale come true. The cast is delightfully diverse, making the ballet emblematic of a larger world family. This Nutcracker is Holiday tradition at its best – light as snow, sweet as chocolate, and warm and welcoming as a family hearth. Add it to your festive season celebrations.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission.
Note: All dancers mentioned were dancing the day the reviewer saw the show. Other dancers take these roles at some performances.