Ashley Ellis and Lasha Khosashvili in Mikko Nissinen's The Nutcracker Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Ashley Ellis and Lasha Khosashvili
in Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Boston Opera House
December 17, 2015

Carla DeFord

It’s Nutcracker time again. Boston Common is decked out with lights, and there’s an air of anticipation in the city. The new Boston Ballet production, which debuted in 2013, is one of the grandest of the festive events happening around town. Entrancing for children, whether in the audience or onstage, The Nutcracker has depth enough to engage adults willing to submit to the enchantment of fairy tales. To paraphrase Dickens’s words in A Christmas Carol, one must concede the mythical premises of the ballet or “nothing wonderful can come of [it].” There’s plenty of opportunity for wonder in this production, which at its best combines great dance and music with marvelous visual effects.

The high point of the evening was Ashley Ellis as Snow Queen with Lasha Khozashvili as her partner. In this performance, she reminded me of Stevie Wonder’s ribbon in the sky, as each of her exquisite positions melted seamlessly into another. Her elegant port de bras, miraculously flexible back, and perfect placement in the lifts all contributed to a technique of stunning virtuosity.

Then there was her relationship to the music. In her phrasing, she played with the notion of tempo, contrasting the speed of her spins and turns with her otherwise unhurried, legato line. Like a gradually unfolding rose she opened herself up to Tchaikovsky’s rhapsodic score, and the radiance of her face when she lifted it to heaven created moments of pure transcendence.

Improved management of the theatrical snow further enhanced the impact of the scene.  In previous years it fell so fast that the dancers were engulfed in a blizzard almost immediately. This time the snow descended more slowly and built to a climax with the music. By the end of the pas de deux, it was coming down in earnest, and when Ellis’s tiara threw off sparks of light through the snowflakes, the effect was mesmerizing.

Anais Chalendard was Sugar Plum, and she is a compelling stage presence. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her ferocity as Gamzatti in the Act I, scene II, fight scene of La Bayadère. That said, her technique in this role appeared a little stiff. For example, in the grand pas deux when Sugar Plum’s leg quivers during a supported turn (the same movement seen in the Act II grand pas de deux of Swan Lake), hers looked as if it were shaking rather than quivering, so the intensity of the moment was muted.

Ricardo Santos in Mikko Nissinen's The Nutcracker Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Ricardo Santos in Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker
Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Beyond questions of technique, there was a certain spiritual element missing. One did not feel in this Sugar Plum either the rapture of love or the transitory nature of joy that are essential to the role. The lack of chemistry between the fairy princess and her cavalier, played by Federico Fresi, didn’t help. Fresi, who recently came to Boston Ballet from La Scala, is a phenomenal jumper, and the positions he attains in the air are so perfect as to take one’s breath away. His thrilling technique almost becomes a kind of character creation in itself, but as of now, acting is not his strong suit. My hope for both dancers is that they will find ways to enrich their interpretation of these roles over time.

A few other dancers gave memorable performances, including Patrick Yocum as Herr Silberhaus, who looked like a perfectly dignified pater familias, but also managed some nice comic business with Sabi Varga as Drosselmeier and displayed precise entrechat six during the adults’ party dance. Notable too were Richardo Santos as an impressive Harlequin and Samivel Evans in the Spanish variation. The latter’s utterly convincing matador-like moves reminded me of Angel Corella in the Don Quixote grand pas de deux.

Maria Baranova’s Arabian variation was as sinuous as anyone could wish for, her circling port de bras in the final lifts being especially effective. This was another couple that lacked chemistry, however; her partner looked dutiful rather than enthralled as he carried her from one place to another and helped her get into and out of some strenuous gymnastic poses. Richardo Santos returned with an energetic Chinese variation, featuring jumps that delighted the audience. Also notable for launching himself skyward was Isaac Akiba, who’s been doing lead Russian for several years and has really grown into the role. At this point he’s brimming with confidence and performs multiple split leaps with the greatest of ease. It’s a pleasure to see him thoroughly enjoying himself while accomplishing such athletic feats.

One of the chief joys of the Boston Ballet production of The Nutcracker is the live music played by its orchestra of over 50 members. For this performance, assistant conductor Geneviève Leclair was at the podium, and the orchestra was in top form. Everything onstage, from Fresi’s spectacular jumps to Ellis’s ecstatic stretches in the air high above her partner’s head, was accomplished in collaboration with Leclair and the superb musicians of the Boston Ballet Orchestra.