Wright Center, Samford University, Birmingham, AL; December 20, 2013

Rachel Hellwig

Alabama Ballet is one of six U.S. companies officially licensed to perform “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'”. While the choreography and costumes are more or less the same as what you would see in the New York City Ballet’s production, the scenery is somewhat different and there are a few additional roles for young performers.

The snow scene is usually the highlight of Act I and this is also true in the Balanchine Nutcracker. Alabama Ballet’s production sets this scene against an enchanting night sky filled with illuminated stars that flash wildly when they first appear, just like the lights on the Christmas tree at the beginning of the transformation scene.

The other highlight of Act I, which is unique to the Balanchine Nutcracker, is the added interlude that takes place after the party. This scene features music that Tchaikovsky originally composed for The Sleeping Beauty, although you can hear hints of Nutcracker tunes in it. The beautiful and melancholy melody guides a mimed scene in which a worried Marie sneaks out of bed and back to the parlor to check on her broken Nutcracker. She then falls asleep on the sofa with the beloved toy cradled in her arms. While she sleeps, her mother comes searching for her by candlelight. When she finds Marie, she covers her with her shawl to protect her from the cold. Once she leaves the room, Herr Drosselmeyer magically appears to repair the Nutcracker from damage inflicted by Marie’s mischievous brother Fritz.

In Act II, Marie and Herr Drosselmeyer’s nephew, portrayed by Lillian Still and Greg Sanders, charmingly whisper to each and laugh in delight as they watch the showcase of dances presented by the Sugar Plum Fairy’s royal court. In the Spanish-themed Hot Chocolate dance, Anne Caroline Thompson, Alexander Forck and a corps of couples performed with energy, character, and finesse. In Tea, Trevor Felixbrod’s delightfully effortless jumps were contrasted with Mai Uesaka and Patricia Bianco’s sharp and sparkling pointework. As Coffee, Kelli Murdock Sylestine whirled and leapt with grace and lightness. In Candy Canes, Noah Hart easily handled a tricky series of hoop jumps while an ensemble of students accompanied him with liveliness and joy. The young performers dancing as Polichinelles were especially ebullient this year. They were enjoying the dance as much as the audience was enjoying watching them. Marzipan was my favorite divertissement leading up the Waltz of the Flowers. Elizabeth Gamble and her quartet of shepherdesses stood out for their brightness and crisp musicality.

Choreographically, I think that the finest moment in Act II, and probably the entire ballet, is the Waltz of the Flowers. Balanchine’s brilliant use of space, pacing, geometric formations and shapes is completely absorbing from start to finish. As Dewdrop, Alana Czernobil exuded wonderful ballon, balance, and delicacy. She inspired the audience to burst into applause many times before the piece was over.

It takes an especially engaging performance of the Grand Pas De Deux to be a captivating follow up to the Waltz of the Flowers. But Ariana Czernobil as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nukri Mamistvalov as her Cavalier accomplished just that. Dancing with strength, articulation and ease, they gave the piece a more romantic interpretation than is usual, which was both fascinating and heartwarming.

Several years ago, Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times made a keen observation about the Balanchine Nutcracker. He wrote:

“At […] every point of this “Nutcracker,” we’re children again. So much drama is about the loss of innocence or of paradise in some form, but here is an enthralling tale of innocence preserved and paradise discovered.”

The great overall magic of the Nutcracker is that it creates an atmosphere of infinite, childlike hope. There is nothing broken beyond repair. There is no danger that goes undefeated. There is no sadness that will not soon blossom into a dance of joy. Alabama Ballet’s production on Friday night achieved this marvelous effect.