Oregon Ballet Theatre
Keller Auditorium
Portland, OR

December 9, 2017 evening
George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”

Dean Speer

I almost surprised myself with how much I enjoyed Oregon Ballet Theatre’s recent presentation of its production of George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’, and this got me thinking — what makes a ballet good or great? What are the elements that distinguish an okay Nutcracker from one that inspires or carries us away? What factors might play into this? Where and how can greatness be found?

Candace Bouchard (foreground) and members of the company in Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of "George Balanchine’s 'The Nutcracker'" Photo Emily Nash

Candace Bouchard (foreground)
and members of the company
in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of
“George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'”
Photo by Emily Nash

I think, for me, several things come to mind: an overall arching concept, not just a series of short dances strung together; how the elements of choreography and production values such as excellent and complementary lighting, costumes, scenic design and execution play into this effect; the importance of great music and live accompaniment; and, of course, performances that are superb. Which belies the question, what makes a superb performance? Is it being in the moment? Is it how well the dancers were coached? Razor-sharp technique? Depth of artistry? And how in the world if one desires and wants artistic depth, is it actually achieved?

The great American modern dance pioneer Martha Graham used to like to paraphrase a composer colleague by saying, “You have so little time to be born to the instant.”

All of these elements come together in the crucible and matrix of the stage. Each contributing artist or team of artists brings their respective “A” game, all believing that their pieces fit together like a wonderful jigsaw puzzle. Fit they do, because someone was able to give them artistic guidance and vision along the way. When these pieces are presented to the public, a series of performances becomes singular and holds the magic of that time and marked place.

Such was the case for the Opening Night performance (the second in its run of 19 shows) of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’. I found the cast ready, primed, and well prepared as they launched through the two-hour program. Perhaps it was because I knew what to expect that I didn’t mind too much the couple of places in Balanchine’s rendition that I normally find a bit dry — some segments of the Act I Party Scene and then the transition scene as Marie’s mother searches their house during a lovely but longish violin solo.

Chauncey Parsons and Xuan Chang in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of "George Balanchine’s 'The Nutcracker'" Photo by James McGrew

Chauncey Parsons and Xuan Chang
in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of
“George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'”
Photo by James McGrew

I was also primed because some of my favorite OBT dancers were cast that night — Xuan Cheng as the Sugar Plum Fairy; Her Cavalier danced by Chauncey Parsons, and marking her transition to leaving the stage at the conclusion of the run, the amazing Candace Bouchard as Dewdrop.

Speaking of the Party Scene, who could not like and be charmed by the wit and fun of having Linda Besant and David Threefoot as the Grandparents? Thomas Baker was a fearsome Mouse King whose death scene was droll. Swirling Snowflakes were accompanied by the angelic sounds of guest singers from the Oregon Chorale.

David Threefoot, Linda Besantin, and members of the company in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of "George Balanchine’s 'The Nutcracker'" Photo by Emily Nash

David Threefoot, Linda Besant,
and members of the company in
Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of
“George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'”
Photo by Emily Nash

In Act II, Emily Parker’s Arabian Coffee was very well phrased and executed. It’s an exotic solo but a bit thin, even for Balanchine choreographically, and Parker excelled. Avery Reiners’ Candy Cane (a/k/a Russian dance) drew super fun jaw-dropping comments from audience members as he flew across the stage and through his spinning hula-hoop. Great stuff.

Ansa Capizzi led her Marzipan Shepherdesses through the petite allegro pointe steps of their Pan flute dance — tons of echappes, hops en pointe, and for Capizzi, double gargouillade jumps. This is some of Balanchine’s most inventive and best mini-masterpieces anywhere. Ah, and then I got to enjoy Bouchard as the Dewdrop as she essayed and easily soared through her assignment — double rond de jambe saute, a turning sequence toward the end that would send plain old fouettee folk scurrying for the exits. Strong, in command and control throughout, it was a joy to watch Bouchard as she moved in, out, and with the surrounding Flowers.

Members of Oregon Ballet Theatre in "George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'" Photo by Emily Nash

Members of Oregon Ballet Theatre
in “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'”
Photo by Emily Nash

Cheng and Parsons’ Grand pas de deux was everything that it should be and more – regal, exciting, daring, kinetic. In a sense, the whole affair builds up to this duet (no pressure, right?) and together they each performed with assurance and exacting control. Promenades with holding just one arm or hand, long balances, and rapid pirouettes, topped off with an very spectacular fish dive pose.

All too soon the mighty OBT Orchestra led by maestro Niel DePonte played their last chords as we all said thank you and farewell to Marie (Neah Lim) and her little prince (Twylo Landey) as they sailed away on their magic boat, and in the case of the audience, went out into the crisp Portland night.