Roasting Chestnuts On An Open Fire

Saturday Evening, December 12th, 2015
Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon

Dean Speer

Oregon Ballet Theatre's Xuan Cheng as Dew Drop in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

Oregon Ballet Theatre’s Xuan Cheng as Dew Drop in
George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”
Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert

As we were indulging in and enjoying the wonderful aroma of chestnuts being roasted in the foyer of the theatre prior to the show, Linda Besant, Oregon Ballet Theatre’s official historian (and sometime Grandmother in Nutcracker, as with this particular performance), asked us a really good question following her lively and informative pre-performance talk, paraphrased here – why drive nearly four hours to Portland, when we can see George Balanchine’sThe Nutcracker” these days right in our own backyard in Seattle, with the advent of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s own new production of it?

The answer is both simple and multi-layered. The simple answer is that OBT’s holiday production is included in the season subscription. But wanting to enjoy and support an art form we believe in, as well as loyalty to OBT and a dedication to seeing it succeed in all of its ventures are part of it as well. Plus it’s fun to get out of town and have an adventure along the way – in this case, driving the soggy freeway through nine intense rain squalls was definitely worth it.

It was clearly worth it too for the dancers and company as a whole. I was very happy to see not only a really good cast and performance but also that Keller’s top balcony was open and had enthusiastic ballet-goers in it. A lively “house” but also this show featured the mighty OBT Orchestra, giving us the live accompaniment so necessary and which ballet and dance deserve.

The dancers were in peak form, technically sharp, with excellent ensemble work, and artistically fulfilling. They show, as always, good coaching and rehearsal from the talented and knowledgeable artistic staff. Kudos not only to the stagers, Elyse Borne and Darla Hoover, both former New York City Ballet dancers and students of Balanchine, but also to the local staff of ballet masters Lisa Kipp and Jeffrey Stanton – and a special shout-out to children’s coach, Gavin Larsen. It really does take a village to put together a large-scale show such as this.

Xuan Cheng as the Sugar Plum Fairy was very strong, controlled, and free in her rendering of the rigorous and very challenging [read hard] steps Balanchine inserted, not only for the celeste solo that in this version happens toward the top of Act II, and not only in the pas de deux, but also for the coda. Brian Simcoe as the Cavalier was equally strong, confident, and energetic and clear in his all-too-brief solo that comes at the top of the coda from the Grand Pas de Deux of Act II. [One of my longtime fusses about this Balanchine version is that the traditional male solo is cut from the duet.] Their adagio duet was truly thrilling, and here, Balanchine really shows his choreographic mettle. The touch of the theatrical of the ballerina making a small pas de cheval into disk [that can barely be seen] gives the wonderful illusion that she’s being pulled across the stage by Simcoe whilst long holding a solid and gorgeous 90-degree arabesque is exciting and magical, just as the concluding “fish dive” is spectacular.

Some of the choreographic best also received great performances:  Marzipan Shepherdesses, led by Kelsie Nobriga – with their many sharp passe pieds to various ballet positions [second, fifth, etc.] hops en pointe, and pirouettes. The Waltz of the Flowers with its kaleidoscope of patterns that visually thrill and the Dewdrop [Ansa Deguchi] whose sauté rond de jambes had great “air.”  The other big piece comes at the end of Act I, with the Snowflakes making emboité and many relevés passes, swirling and giving us the marvelous sense of a snow storm that abates for the two young protagonists to walk hand-in-hand through the forest in the upstage direction of the North Star. Curtain. End of Act I.

Notable – and who received much deserved shouts and “wows!” of approval – Avery Reiners’ Candy Cane, whose hoop jumping was the stuff that makes us want to learn to jump like that, too. His timing and clarity were what made it work so well. I’ve seen others do this, who were good too, but whose timing didn’t show off the swoop and speed of the sequence like his.

This production ends with Marie [Sarah Harmon] and The Nutcracker [Eliot Wallace] waving goodbye to his fairy tale and magical friends as he takes her back, via snow sleigh to her own world.

And for us, shaking off the illusion but not the euphoria that comes with great dancing, a fine theatrical experience, and a sense of community and celebratory inclusion. Worth a long drive? You bet!