Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY; December 18 and 19, 2013
As a follow-up to my earlier review, I saw two additional performances of Alexei Ratmansky’s version of “The Nutcracker’” presented by American Ballet Theatre, on December 18 and 19. Like the ballet itself, these performances were a mixed bag: some were excellent, others less so.
On Wednesday, Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews assumed the roles of Princess Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. I am not aware of previous occasions where Ms. Kajiya and Mr. Matthews had been stage partners previously in New York – though I do know of such pairings previously outside the New York area. Regardless, based on Wednesday’s performance, it was long overdue. The two danced remarkably well, each bringing rich characterization to their roles as well as top notch execution in all respects. Ms Kajiya’s almost-but-not-quite over-the-top portrayal of Princess Clara as dreamed by young Clara was a delightful surprise. Mr. Matthews executed superbly, with an abundance of confidence to accompany his abundant technical prowess. But most importantly, they worked well together, and were secure with each other. The critical running shoulder lifts in Act I, and the dead weight one-armed overhead sitting lift (‘bicycle lift’) in Act II, were executed to perfection. Simply put, their performances were among the finest I’ve seen in these roles since Mr. Ratmansky’s version of the ballet premiered in 2010, and Mr. Matthews now ranks as one of ABT’s most capable and confident partners.
Thursday’s performance was another matter. Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak are an ideal stage pair, and watching them together is seeing young Clara’s dream as one might expect it to look. But at this performance, this appearance of natural stage compatibility was undermined by partnering problems. Whatever the reason (inadequate skill or strength by Mr. Gorak, or a lack of confidence in his partnering ability by Ms. Lane), the result was substandard connections at critical points. In Act I, the first running shoulder lift failed, and the second was abandoned. In Act II, Mr. Gorak managed to successfully hoist Ms. Lane overhead, but it took obvious effort – and when he carried her downstage as she was wobbling precariously on his hand ten feet or so above the stage floor, it looked like a disaster waiting to happen. It didn’t – but one could see the justifiable fear in Ms. Lane’s eyes.
Both dancers ‘covered’ these problems reasonably well. If you didn’t know that the first shoulder lift was botched, and the second abandoned, you may not have noticed. And there is a measure of appropriate audience appreciation when the Prince successfully lifts Princess Clara over his head, even when the quality is subpar. But these problems, which it appears both dancers had anticipated, shouldn’t happen, and have inevitable ramifications: although the balance of their performance was well-executed, with Ms. Lane dancing a particularly fine solo during the pas de deux, they appeared more tentative and less effusive than they should have for these roles. Mr. Gorak, a highly promising danseur, was appropriately attentive to Ms. Lane throughout. So unless an undisclosed injury was the problem’s source (as it was when they debuted in these roles a couple of years ago – a performance that I saw but did not review), the deficiency is one of strength and confidence, not self-absorption, and can be fixed. For Ms. Lane, however, the situation is both dire and incomprehensible. The inability of the company to provide perhaps its tiniest ballerina with a suitable partner so she can dance reasonably free from fear is, at best, perplexing.
Among the other roles, there are some small roles that tend to fade into the woodwork – the combined role of the Butler (Act I) and Majordomo (Act II) is one of them. But proving once again that there are no small roles, on Thursday, Luis Ribagorda took this assignment to another level. Where others execute the combined role mechanically, giving it an air of insignificance, Mr. Ribagorda was a perfect comic foil, adding brief ‘throwaway’ gestures that made the Butler appear concurrently officious and endearing, and converting the wooden role of the Majordomo into one of power and decisiveness, cushioned by a touch of self-deprecation appropriate for a second banana. In the Arabian dance, at Wednesday’s performance James Whiteside repeated his opening night performance earlier this season. Looking like an Ed Hardy version of Mr. Clean, Mr. Whiteside executed well but lacked the character of the put-upon slave master who wants to be alone but craves the attention from his harem girls. On Thursday, Patrick Ogle assumed the role, executing less crisply but appearing more appropriately engaged. Wednesday’s four harem girls (Nicola Curry, April Giangeruso, Nicole Graniero, and Jennifer Whalen) displayed an enticing combination of sensuality, frustrated interest, and humor; but Elina Miettinen, who joined three of the other four at Thursday’s performance, added extraordinarily fine-tuned comic timing to her crystalline execution. Cassandra Trenary and Zhiyao Zhang were Wednesday’s Columbine and Harlequin, and Gemma Bond and Arron Scott assumed the roles on Thursday. Each pair executed well. Courtney Lavine was a promising Nanny/Sugar Plum Fairy at Wednesday’s performance (Zhong-Jing Fang reprised the combined role on Thursday), and Roman Zhurbin did a fine job as Drosselmeyer at both performances.
At each of these performances the roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Boy were assumed by Victoria Arrea and Kent Andrews, both students at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. Each performed very well, with Ms. Arrea delivering a more endearingly understated Clara than I’ve previously seen, and young Mr. Andrews showing considerable potential. I particularly liked the way he interacted with Ms. Arrea, displaying sincere interest and concern for her safety during scary moments. At both performances, Justin Souriau-Levine and Gregor Gillen repeated their roles as the Little Mouse and Fritz, and the other JKO students who populated the Stahlbaum home in Act I, and who were Little Fairies, Pages, or Polichinelles in Act II, were delightful. Finally, David LaMarche should be recognized for conducting the ABT Orchestra at both performances with particular, and appropriate, sensitivity to developments on stage.