Opera House, Boston, MA; December 28 and 31, 2014

Carla DeFord

Misa Kuranaga as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Jeffrey Cirio as the Nutcracker Prince.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Misa Kuranaga as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Jeffrey Cirio as the Nutcracker Prince.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

What a difference three days makes. After attending Mikko Nissinen’s “The Nutcracker” on December 28, I was left with the feeling that having danced more than 40 performances of it in two months, the company was showing a certain weariness. The New Year’s Eve matinée was quite a different story, but more about that later.

On December 28 a few dancers gave outstanding performances, but they were the exceptions. First on the list of standouts was Ashley Ellis as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She never phones in a performance, and her attention to the most minute aspects of expressiveness: the angles of her head and hands, her port de bras, the perfect positioning of every pose, not to mention the sublimity of her interaction with Tchaikovsky’s score were reasons enough for me to feel grateful to be in the audience.

Calissa Grady as Clara was reason number two. Her floating port de bras, the flexibility of her back, the rapidity of her spins, and her positions in the lifts were all impressive. Moreover, her ability to create a convincing relationship with Drosselmeier, her unfailing graciousness even while being harassed by the boys in the Act I party scene, and her self-possession when faced with a pack of marauding mice, all mark her as a dancing actress of great promise. She is truly a rising star.

I also enjoyed Bo Busby as pater familias Herr Silberhaus; the tilt of his head and torso in leading the adult promenade gave the whole sequence distinction. In the Spanish dance Irlan Silva was the one to watch, especially the beautiful positions of his head and hands.  Boyko Dossev created a strong connection with the audience as Mother Ginger; his skirts of course housed the polichinelles, who are some of the youngest dancers in the production, and they all did Boston Ballet School proud.

Contributing to the more dramatic side of the production were Kathleen Breen Combes and Sabi Varga, who performed a haunting and exotic Arabian pas de deux. I’ve never understood why Varga has not been promoted to principal. He is one of the most compelling male dancers on the Boston Ballet roster.

Finally, it was a pleasure to see Eris Nezha completely relaxed and thoroughly enjoying himself as Drosselmeier. Perhaps a touch more mysteriousness or even menace in his characterization would have been welcome, but I loved the way he interacted with Clara, whether spinning her around in his arms or comforting her after the Nutcracker doll broke. As Siegfried in “Swan Lake” he seemed worried about getting through the role, but here he showed his playfulness and considerable charm.

On December 31 I was privileged to see three absolutely top-notch ballerinas in featured roles: Ashley Ellis as Snow Queen, Misa Kuranaga as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Whitney Jensen as Dew Drop. All three possess stunning technique including the ability to stop on a dime and freeze in position to underscore a musical point.

Ashley Ellis as Dew Drop, Lauren Herfindahl and Dawn Atkins as flowers in Boston Ballet's 'The Nutcracker'.  Photo © GeneSchiavone

Ashley Ellis as Dew Drop, Lauren Herfindahl and Dawn Atkins as flowers in Boston Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’.
Photo © GeneSchiavone

Other pleasures of this performance included Sean Keating as Fritz.  He is an outstanding young dancer. Not only did his movement have bounce and snap, it related intelligently to the music. I can’t remember seeing a comparable Fritz since Dylan Tedaldi in 2002.

Alexander Marianowski of Boston Ballet II gave a believable performance as the grandfather, whose doddering was both funny and touching. Desean Taber brought an unusual sensibility to Mother Ginger: less slapstick humor and more flirtatiousness. The last polichinelle to return to her skirts was noticeably more spunky than most.

Lasha Koshavili and Lia Cirio did a memorable Arabian pas de deux. There seemed to be a personal connection between them that enhanced their interpretation of the roles. When he clapped his hands to call for her to appear, one felt it was his personal magnetism that made her obey. It reminded me of the relationship between Solor and Nikiya in ‘La Bayadère”.

As the Nutcracker Prince Jeffrey Cirio was a revelation. He’s become much stronger physically since he was first promoted to principal, and now all his lifts are solid. Beyond that, he has made himself into a fine actor. The passionate intensity with which he relates to his ballerina is something I have not seen in any other Boston Ballet male principal. I particularly appreciated the way he and Kuranaga used their heads to punctuate phrases in the music. It’s apparent that their working together steadily has enabled them to refine their performances to a high degree.

By now I have seen Kuranaga and Ellis in a variety of starring roles and have come to realize that although equally accomplished, they operate from quite different perspectives. In trying to come to terms with that, I thought of a distinction that Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee once made when talking to me about the differences between conducting for New York City Ballet and the Royal Ballet. He said that NYCB dancers always “move on the front end of the beat,” which makes their dancing look “effortless [and] speedy” whereas Royal Ballet dancers dance on the back half of the beat, which makes them look “elegant [and] reflective.”

I don’t mean to imply a literal equivalence here, but Kuranaga, like NYCB dancers, strikes me as being slightly more forward in her approach, and Ellis, like Royal Ballet dancers, more deliberate. In the Boston Globe, Kuranaga was recently described by Jeffrey Gantz as “quicksilver,” and although she never seems rushed and her performances are full of exquisite details, it’s a fair assessment. Ellis’s focus is on breadth and depth of movement, although she too can be speedy, as witness her Odile. In general, Kuranaga emphasizes brilliance of attack and Ellis luxuriance of phrase (with an inner radiance that sometimes effloresces into ecstasy). Both are dancers to be treasured.  Boston Ballet, not to mention its audience, is fortunate to have them.