McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ; November 30, 2013

State Theater, New Brunswick, NJ; December 21, 2013

Jerry Hochman

Shaye Firer and Marc St. Pierre in "Nutcracker" Photo © Leighton Chen

Shaye Firer and Marc St. Pierre in “The Nutcracker”
Photo © Leighton Chen

How does one measure a ballet performance’s success? Certainly by the creativity of the choreography, the quality of the production, and the execution by the dancers. But a measure of a performance’s success is also its ability to connect with and be appreciated by its audience. And when a company’s performance ‘connects’ with an audience the way American Repertory Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker” connected with its New Brunswick audience last Saturday, as I’ll describe more fully below, it demonstrates that ‘bigger’ is not necessarily ‘better’.

Celebrating its Fiftieth annual Nutcracker season, ARB presented its evolving (and apparently final – at least for awhile) incarnation of “The Nutcracker” at multiple venues in New Jersey over the past four weeks. I saw two performances: at the McCarter Theater in Princeton on November 30th, and at the State Theater in New Brunswick on December 21st (the second performance of the day at each site).

The production was first presented in 1964, choreographed by company founders Audree and Bud Estey, and over time ARB has updated and revised the ballet’s choreography, costumes, and sets, the most recent of which, a growing Christmas Tree, was unveiled this year. While ARB cannot possibly present a “Nutcracker” with the bells and whistles and polished execution of the nationally renowned companies up the road, the current production is convincingly magical in its own right, and what it lacks in budget and size it makes up for in sensitivity and enthusiasm.

The story is your standard Nutcracker, but there are essential choreographic differences as well as unique stylistic details that make this production in many ways more comfortable and homespun than others: a grandma’s apple pie kind of Nutcracker. The Christmas Eve party at the Silverhaus home (no explanation for ‘Silverhaus’ rather than ‘Stahlbaum’) is relatively unexceptional, but I found the ‘conversion’ from the Silverhaus living room to Clara’s dream to be inventively done, and the battle scenes to be exceptionally well-staged and executed – particularly the ‘marching band’ patterning for the soldiers. The original choreography for the party and battle scenes is attributed to the company founders, but program notes indicate that the scenes were restaged by its Artistic Director Douglas Martin in 2010, and restaged again this year by Sherry Alban, a teacher and choreographer at the company’s affiliated Princeton Ballet School.

The ‘candles’ on the Christmas Tree that dominates the Silverhaus living room area are lit by Herr Silverhaus individually, candle by candle, as must have been the case before electricity and Christmas Tree lights. Nifty. The maid (nanny) uses her saliva to tame Fritz’s hair, sneezes upon sniffing gifted flowers, and is pursued by a lecherous guest – all (and other such details) taking place off center stage, and unseen by most one-time viewers. Delicious attention to detail. And after the nutcracker ‘doll’ is damaged by Clara’s brother, Drosselmeyer dabs tears from Clara’s eyes – and then bandages the Nutcracker with the same ‘tear-stained’ handkerchief. Super sweet. Regardless of the production’s other virtues, this one breathtakingly simple image (one that I don’t recall seeing in other productions) epitomizes the gentle tenor of this production.

Alexander Dutko in "The Nutcracker" Photo © Leighton Chen

Alexander Dutko in “The Nutcracker”
Photo © Leighton Chen

However, this “Nutcracker” comes into its own after the Party and Battle scenes: in the ‘Snowflake’ dance, which is led by the Snowflake Queen and King, and the dances in the Land of the Sweets in Act II, all of which were choreographed by Mr. Martin (except for the Marzipan Dance and the dance for the Polchinelles, which are credited to company Ballet Master Mary Barton). Among these dances, each of which is similar to, but at the same time different from, dances to the same music in other productions (and each of which is well staged and executed), the Spanish Dance is particularly noteworthy. It’s usually a weak sister – an effort to be a reasonably authentic recreation of a Spanish style, but not much more. Here, the Spanish Dance is a dynamic highlight.

The ballet concludes brilliantly. In certain other productions, after Clara leaves her bed, returns to the living room to be with her nutcracker ‘doll’, and falls asleep, and before she begins to dream, her mother finds her and covers her with a blanket to keep her warm. Here, the ‘blanket’ image is blended into the action in a different way. As the ballet ends, the denizens of the dream, the inhabitants of the Land of the Sweets, fade into the background behind a scrim, but are still clearly visible.  In front of the scrim, her mother finds Clara asleep with her nutcracker folded in her arms, and gently covers her sleeping daughter with a blanket.  As the curtain descends, the audience sees both Clara, and Clara’s dream as she continues to dream it. Perfect.

As finely conceived and executed as these details are, what makes this production is its spirit and the infectious energy level communicated by the dancers.

In all the ARB Nutcracker performances, ARB company members rotated in the lead and featured roles. At the November 30 performance, Karen Leslie Moscato and Alexander Dutko danced a crisply-executed Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, as did Shaye Firer and Marc St. Pierre on December 21st. Mr. Dutko is one of the company’s most capable dancers, and he performed with facility and enthusiasm. Ms. Moscato danced very well, exhibiting the strengths that she showed in her Juliet earlier this year, but appeared somewhat monochromatic in contrast to the ebullient Mr. Dutko. Ms. Firer danced a particularly strong Sugar Plum Fairy (and tossed off double fouettes to near perfection), but given my observations of Ms. Firer previously, this was not unexpected. Mr. St. Pierre, however, was a surprise –he partnered Ms. Firer securely, and although it looked as if he was going to blow every jump and twist and turn in his solo, pulled them all out cleanly. On the 30th, Ms. Firer danced an exuberant Dew Drop, with Claire van Bever somewhat more subdued on the 21st.

On the 30th, Monica Giragosian danced the Snow Queen, a role assumed by Samantha Gullace on the 21st. Ms. Giragosian was a bundle of energy – a little flyaway, but with obvious enthusiasm. Ms. Gullace danced with more control, but punctuated the end of each musical phrase with an unnecessary and distracting open-mouthed exclamation. Edward Urwin was the Snow King at each performance, partnering skillfully at both, but appearing more comfortable on the 21st. As the lead Spanish dancer, Ms. van Bever danced very well on the 30th, but Ms. Giragosian played her abundant energy to advantage on the 21st, delivering a performance both in character and exhilarating to watch. As the lead Arabian dancer, Ms. Gullace on the 30th and Nanako Yamamoto on the 21st were each appropriately serpentine and seductive, with Ms. Gullace particularly smoldering. Stephen Campanella did a fine job as the Chinese man on the 30th, but Mr. Dutko danced the role with extraordinary clarity and precision on the 21st. At both performances, Alice Cao danced a finely tuned lead Marzipan dancer, Joshua Kurtzberg performed the lead Candy Cane with abundant skill and enthusiasm, Andrea D’Annunzio was the relatively high-strung but ingratiating maid, and Mr. Martin played Drosselmeyer with an appropriate combination of visible affection, benevolent power, and magnificent charm. And while I felt that the character of Clara and Fritz was not clearly delineated (they’re older children – Clara dances en pointe – but acted, during the Party Scene and its prologue, like much younger ones), the young PBS dancers who played Clara and Fritz, who were not credited, as well as those who performed in nearly every scene and dance, all performed well.

The spirited execution was common to both performances, and the Princeton performance was obviously appreciated.  But the performance in New Brunswick, which featured a live orchestra (the ARB Orchestra, led by conductor Michael Pratt, ARB’s Music Advisor and a member of the Princeton University music faculty), and live singing by the Princeton Girlchoir (who emerged silently to line one side of the orchestra seating area, and whose sweet voices consequently sounded as if they came from within the audience), was on another level, one that performers dream about, and that even frequent viewers like me rarely see.

There was a continuing flow of energy between the audience and the dancers that grew in intensity as the performance progressed. I heard ooohs and aaahs and hoots and whistles and appreciative applause at various points through Act I (nothing inappropriate or impolite) – but this was just the tip of the mutual admiration iceberg. In Act II, the audience became a part of the production, rhythmically clapping to the beat of the Tchaikovsky score (enthusiastically, rather than robotically), beginning with the Chinese Dance, and continuing through Candy Canes and the Polchinelles. The culminating dances for Dew Drop Fairy and the Flowers, and for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, were greeted with open-mouth gasps – particularly when Ms. Firer executed that string of double fouettes, and Mr. St. Pierre pulled seemingly ‘Hail Mary’ tricks out of his hat. The synergy was extraordinary, with each participating unit, the dancers and the audience, continuing to fuel the other. And when it ended, not only were little girls dancing on the sidewalk outside the theater – their fathers were too.

Smaller may not be better. But sometimes, as with ARB’s “Nutcracker,” it can be very good indeed.