With only three performances in two days, Oakland Ballet’s Nutcracker barely had time to get over jet lag, but the crowds that jammed the Art Deco jewel box of the Paramount Theatre the weekend before Christmas clearly hoped it would hang out for longer next year.
“I am experiencing a kind of crisis,” Tchaikovsky wrote gloomily, after being ordered by the tzar’s flunkeys to compose a ballet score for a flimsy tale centred around children, rats and a candy kingdom. After the glory of The Sleeping Beauty, the Nutcracker commission seemed like an insult.
But the death of his beloved sister Sasha fueled a burst of creativity: Sasha’s spirit was to live on in the gutsy, engaging character of Clara, and Tchaikovsky poured his grief, and his vivid childhood memories, into stirring musical themes whose richly evocative symphonic orchestrations ring out today not just in opera houses around the world but also in shopping malls, elevators and television commercials.
Graham Lustig’s deft handling of the tale for Oakland Ballet is aided and abetted by Zack Brown’s stylish sets and costumes. Lustig shifts the setting from Napoleonic Bavaria to Vienna on the eve of World War I – hooray for slimmer silhouettes, swirling skirts with Empire waists, and glamorous beading.
Lustig wisely situates young Clara and her Nutcracker Prince at the heart of the ballet – not just youthful spectators with little actual dancing, as in many productions. The radiant Ramona Kelley and winsome Gregory DeSantis are utterly believable as teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. Their pas de deux in both Acts are fresh and exciting, a splendid match for Tchaikovsky at his most sublime. Under the inspired baton of Michael Morgan, the Oakland East Bay Symphony avoided the showy excesses that can easily tank this familiar score.
Weary Nutcracker veterans sing Hallelujah for the ethnic divertissements of Act II that spare us the tired clichés, and occasionally poke fun at the Orientalist dreamland. The sinuous acrobatics of the Arabian pas de deux, powerfully interpreted at Saturday’s opening by Jackie McConnell and Taurean Green, look entirely modern, and yet Green is, hilariously, costumed in a favored style of the hunks of Soviet dram-ballet: tight trunks with a strap across his bare chest, sparkly anklet and armband. In the Chinese dance, Alysia Chang soars in the role of a Chinese kite who breaks free from her “Little Emperors” – a clever reference to the sociological nightmare unfolding in China, a consequence of the Communist government’s longstanding one-child policy. Lustig may well be augmenting the allegories that historians believe Tchaikovsky hid throughout the Nutcracker score, notably in this string of ersatz folk dances that slyly comment on Russian incursions into neighboring Asiatic lands, from the time of Peter the Great.
– More photos in Carla’s full review in the Huffington Post. –