Sunday, December 17, 2006

To the POINTE: A Nutcracker to Remember

I've seen dozens of Nutcracker productions. I really don't remember my first. I think it might have been an evening in front of the television in the sixties. I lost the plot somewhere along the journey but didn't care. I had no illusions; fantasy didn't have to make sense. If memory serves, I was enchanted. It was "fairy tale" beautiful. I vaguely remember a holiday connection.

The first "live" Nutcracker performance was likely my third time seeing the art form in person. It was definitely my first full-length ballet. I was pregnant with Mathias. Steve and I had moved to Columbia less than a year earlier. My mother was in town. We booked seats at the Township Auditorium to see the CIVIC production by COLUMBIA CITY Ballet. A young local girl, Mariclare Miranda, was dancing the lead. She was partnered by William Starrett, a guest dancer. It was wonderful, a great holiday treat.

We didn't keep up with the local ballet scene. We didn't know that the "Guest Dancer" was about to take over the company, turn it into a professional troupe, sign his partner for employment, start a conservatory with her, and that any of these events would ever affect us in the future. We are naive, ignorant, and paying customers.

Since then we've seen many, many Nutcracker productions and variations. Christmas could never be without a Nutcracker production again. It is a staple in our family. Yet, I cannot forget the viewpoint I first had, that of the PUBLIC--an uneducated, simple, innocent public.

On Friday, we went to the Koger Center to see Columbia City Ballet, a professional company. On Saturday, we went to the Blumenthal Theater in Charlotte to see North Carolina Dance Theater, another professional company. How can I compare the two? What would I recommend? Why? What makes a "Nutcracker" to remember?

Well, if one has never seen ballet but has an open, creative mind, it doesn't matter what production is viewed. One will find it enchanting, beautiful, and artistic. I did. But, I had no idea how much live music adds to a production. The musicians in Charlotte were wonderful. The conductor was acutely aware of the nuances of ballet and let the tempo be dictated by the pulse of the dancing. In Columbia, however, the music is "canned". At least it wasn't as loud as it had been for Radenko Pavlovich's weekend of dance.

In both productions, dozens upon dozens of children from the associated schools had parts to play. In both, the last names of these children could be found among the donors. In both, the role of Clara went to a non-professional. Yet, I had to check my program at intermission to establish the status of Ellen Hummel who danced in Charlotte. She was quite accomplished, young, convincing in the part, and could have easily been a professional in Columbia's company. She seemed truly at that life stage between childhood and future debutante, happy to play with dolls but ready to turn her attention to male companionship.

Nicole Carrion, however, has danced the same role for six years and hasn't improved noticeably. Her major asset seems to be her short stature. She looks only eight or nine. At least this year, a professional Miranda Bailey, danced the role as a "dream sequence". I think William Starrett should have opted for this dancer instead of the pixie sized amateur from the beginning.

Silas Farley played the part of the Nutcracker prince for Charlotte. He arrived as Herr Drosselmeyer's nephew or assistant. He is being taught to dance and how to mime, but I doubt that anyone had to teach him subtle stage presence. His acting just had to be natural. His longing gaze completed the attraction to womanhood for Clara. He was wonderful.

In Columbia City Ballet's Nutcracker, however, the Nutcracker Prince, the beloved of Clara, is in fact her brother Fritz. Odd. Incestuous. Fritz is usually a younger brother. Charlotte had such a character, Nicholas Wilson. He was great. Jose Serrano had the part for Columbia. I've never liked this plot selection. Yet, I try to remember watching that television in the sixties. I lost the plot entirely and didn't care. Perhaps, with so many viewing, I've grown strangely particular about the story line. Perhaps, however, I'm just not a fan of ones older brother playing the part of one's wannabe love interest.

To continue the comparisons in the first act: Mark Diamond for Charlotte was about the best Herr Drosselmeyer I've ever seen. He infused the part with enough humor to endear the character to anyone. He had magic, flair, and stage presence. He could have danced, having been a dancer, but played the part as a character role. Stann Gyynn, for Columbia, was fun but couldn't compare.

William Starrett's party scene has always been enjoyable. I hate the fact that he cuts the overture to a few bars, however. I didn't mind the maid sipping from a hidden flask the first time but it didn't need to be repeated. I've always liked the role of "the widow", a young lady on the prowl. I understand why Mariclare played it as "Scarlett" after losing Serge.....but.....I'd rather see the black costume instead of the obvious costume references to a civil war movie.

I prefer seein Charlotte's young, beautiful party goers. I don't prefer to see gaudy, overdressed "friends" parading in fake furs and feather boas. Yet, I like William Starrett's attention to Louisa, Clara's older sister, and her dance with the lead cadet. I like the humor. In both productions, the mix of student dancing and professional dancing was excellent in Act I. Both were parties I'd like to "attend". The notion of "Christmas" and "presents" and "fantasy" were introduced perfectly.

The battle scene in Charlotte was the production's weakest moment. The headdress for the Nutcracker was absolutely the worst I've ever seen. The Rat King's head actually fell off. The stage in Charlotte was littered with too many students. They did a good job but were not balanced with enough professional work. William's battle scene was remarkably better. Both productions used a cannon, mice and rats, swords, and had Clara throw her shoe to kill the Rat King. Charlotte's sets were amazingly gorgeous however. I heard that they were painted in France. They must have cost tens of thousands. They helped the otherwise lack-luster battle scene.

Clara, in Charlotte, is transported to the Land of Snow in an amazing half "walnut shell" carriage that flies through the air. She dances with the Snow King and is paired with the Nutcracker prince. William, too, used elements of this popular scenario in this year's Nutcracker. I liked it in both shows. As for the lead dancers, we saw Victoria Cholkas as the Snow Queen in Columbia. When she's been as thin as she is currently, she's generally danced as if tired, weak, and too fragile to enjoy. Underweight, this time she looked pretty good but couldn't compare to Rebecca Carmazzi partnered by Sasha Janes in Charlotte. They were awesome.

Both company's, like almost all Nutcracker's, have an intermission at this point. Both opened with rather expected and boring "heaven" scenes full of kids playing with battery operated candles. William uses more gold lame that I hope is in heaven.

Both company's, like almost all Nutcracker's, include some sort of miming that serves as an explanation for Clara's presence in the dreamland of the Sweets. This is followed by a series of variations, a waltz, and the Sugar Plum Fairy's Grand Pas with the Cavalier. Spanish generally is first, but not for Columbia City Ballet. They start near the traditional end (though I've heard other company's has successfully done this). I still think it is strange to start with the waltz.

Paunika Jones, a former Dance Theater of Harlem principal dancer who came to Columbia also as a principal, was mismatched with Tory Morton in the Rose Waltz. She wore blue, Dew Drop Fairy. She is tiny. She is also African-American. Her training is obvious, good posture and delicate precision. Mr. Morton must be over six feet tall, has a full head of blond hair, and didn't really exhibit any flair in technique or stage presence. I thought the combination took away from the dancing.

Columbia City Ballet then did Spanish "Hot Chocolate" as if the male variation from Don Quixote followed by a crowd pleasing Chinese Tea. Two French chefs bring out a large box filled with cute Bon-Bons. They were all fun. Kelly Whitaker was a fine Arabian Princess showing off one contortionist move after another, typical. I was excepting Candy Canes from past years next.

The costumes were right. That was about it. The music and choreography were straight from Sleeping Beauty. Six girls danced as if needing additional rehearsals. At least it was far better than the shocking, cotton-candy-colored, neon (nearly glow-in-the-dark) wigs from last year. This had been to the proper music but shall I say......WAY OVER THE TOP! From our seats in the back row, I heard a simultaneous gasp of "OH, MY GOD!" So, I can say I preferred the "Sleeping Beauty" Marzipan better than the Cotton Candy, but I'm hoping that future productions find creativity without scaring the public.

Russian Sugar Twists were the last of the variations for Columbia City Ballet. Like many people, this is my favorite. I was looking forward to seeing Willie Moore in the male duet with Maurice Johnson. I knew to expect great barrel turns, fantastic turns, high leaps, and repeated 540s. Willie is a natural at these "tricks". Even at eighteen years of age, he's been quite proficient at the razzle-dazzle moves for several years. I was eagerly ready to applaud but something went wrong about half-way through the music. He was off. It wasn't horrible, but it was noticeable. My heart sunk for Willie. He had to be devastated. He lives to perform. He loves to show off. This was to be his moment. I clapped hard anyway.

Columbia City Ballet had Regina Willoughby as the Sugar Plum Fairy partnered by a lack-luster Peter Kozak. She is lovely to watch. Peter seemed to be trying to execute more than he was capable of doing. I found myself wondering about his age, which is sad. He could have danced without trying to fit in so many "extra" moves. I'm probably writing this so incorrectly that it doesn't make sense. What I'm trying to say is that he should have done all the basic choreography well instead of trying all the fancy choreography and managing it poorly. He seemed to be just going through the moves and had a smile plastered on his face as a requirement, not a true emotional feeling.

As for North Carolina Dance Theater, Spanish was Chocolate, too. We saw Emery LeCrone and Andre Texeria in a sassy duet. It had all the typical flair without looking like Don Quixote. Chinese was also Tea. This was a solo by a very young, petite dancer, Anna Gerberich. She was accompanied by a large group of oriental clad elementary schoolers who made up a pleasing background. Mother Ginger brought in four couples of very young students under her large skirt. The part is much funnier played by a man but Meredith Hinshaw did a fair job. The eight students were all girls but half were dressed as boys. Their attire looked much more like the Marzipan variation done by the Kirov than anything I'd seen as Bon Bons. They did a fair job.

Marzipan was a chorus of three dancers, including Seia Rassenti. Seia graduated with Mathias is is happily working in Charlotte. They were great.

Nicholle Rochelle and Adam Stein smoldered as Arabian Coffee. They were accompanied by several student dancers that knelt on pillows in the background. Frankly, as sexually charged as this scene was it really didn't need youthful on-lookers. The dancing was quite captivating. The audience didn't make a sound. It was also not typical: "let me show you my amazing extension and every weird position possible while doing a split". Sure, there was some of this but the focus was more on the exotic mystery of an Eastern flirtation. The group roared while they bowed.

What is it, however, with the Candy Canes? Charlotte's company used the typical Russian music for Candy Canes. Older students dressed in what looked to be fire-retardant sprayed pajamas accompanied Justin Van Weest onto the stage. His outfit looked to be a white double-knit pantsuit with lime green and pink ringlets curling down is torso and legs. Some of the moves were reminiscent of "Russian" and he did have great presence. He just didn't have fantastic steps to carry it off.

This was quickly forgotten, however, in a superb Rose Waltz done with elegant classical tutus that flowed to the music. The choreography was good. It was just lovely and it led perfectly into the highlight of the evening. Traci Gilchrest is a fabulous Sugar Plum Fairy. Addul Manzano partnered her with strength and handsome grace.

(By the way, I don't want anyone to think that my comments about Paunika and Tory were racially based. The height issue was the main problem but it was amplified by what I perceived as little attention to how the two would look together--romantically, like a couple. I'm not sure from what ethnic background Addul comes--perhaps Cuban? I don't know. I don't care---BECAUSE IT DIDN'T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE! They looked good together; they connected; they danced both as one and as two individuals attentively presenting one another. )

Anyway, Traci was gorgeous. She danced beautifully. Addul's opening double tour must have over 36" from the floor. He simply defies gravity but his landings are a bit sloppy, his feet seem to slam the floor. The entire Grand Pas was actually quite breath-taking. The "finale" capped off the production. Clara departed in her walnut shell. Then came the bows.

The bowing was interesting for the fact that in Charlotte there were two. Everyone in Act I bowed at the end of that act. Everyone in Act II bowed at the end of that act. It allowed all those children in Act I to have a chance to bow without waiting until the end. It allowed a few more seconds for these kids without making the bowing overly long. I like this idea.

So, in the end.....what makes a Nutcracker to Remember? Which was the better show? Is the comparison even fair?

A Nutcracker will be remembered if the viewers are transformed into a holiday fairy tale and wake up from the experience already planning for the coming year's performance. Both company's manage this. I will return to both.

Which was the better show? Both had good points. Both had weaknesses. North Carolina Dance Theater easily put far better ballet onto its stage, however.

Is the comparison fair? Yes and No.

Yes, because the ticket prices we paid for equivalent seats was the same. In Charlotte we were treated to live music, better dancing, nicer sets and costumes, and the pleasure of a full house (which really does add to the sense of festivity).

No, because the financial base for these two companies isn't even in the same ballpark. Here in Columbia, we've split dance support into two. It is impossible to ask the fewer number of major companies to support two professional companies. Charlotte has a better, healthier business committee on which to draw funds. Plus, they wisely only support one, good company that is carefully monitored by responsible businessmen that understand the arts.

We should be much better ballet in Columbia. The Nutcracker I'd like to remember hasn't been produced yet. It isn't the one starring my son as the Cavalier. It would be a Nutcracker performed by a unified, professional company here in Columbia. A company that paid a small ensemble of talented dancers a living wage. (By the way, Charlotte has nineteen in the company and six paid dancers in their "second" company. Columbia has thirty-two dancers, excluding those listed as "on leave of absence", and seven unpaid apprentices.) The Nutcracker I'd like to remember would be the best Columbia could produce. It hasn't been done yet.

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