Oregon Ballet Theatre
Keller Auditorium
Portland, OR

December 7, 2019 evening
George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”

Dean Speer

I’ve often wished that I could take all the elements from my favorite, multiple versions of the Nutcracker, and then smoosh them into a single unique production. Like the “underwater” Arabian of Whidbey (Island) Dance Theatre where mermaids emerge from giant oyster shells holding equally giant pearls, George Balanchine’s Marzipan Shepherdesses, Kent Stowell’s Snowflake scene, Eugene Ballet’s lively Party Scene, Ballet West’s Waltz of Flowers with its Rose pas de deux, San Francisco Ballet’s Act I scenery (no dollars were spared), the emoting and over-acting of the head mouse in some productions when it “dies” stumbling about the stage and then twitching — some even turning to the audience and waving bye-bye (a riot), or the new lead-in film that accompanies the overture at Pacific Northwest Ballet (SFB also uses a film during its overture). And just this past weekend I saw a community production in Olympia, Washington, that incorporated magic tricks in Act I (fun).

Members of the company in Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production
of “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'”
Photo by Emily Nash

A number of things favorably impressed me this past week while viewing Oregon Ballet Theatre’s annual foray into the Nutcracker fray with its own production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” The clarity of Act I’s Party Scene; ditto the Marzipan Shepherdesses; strong Sugar Plum Fairy choreography and an equally strong interpreter of it, Eva Burton; an experienced Cavalier, Peter Franc; the good cheer of the Company overall; and excellence in casting and preparedness. If any nerves were on edge due to opening night, it didn’t show. The only element that didn’t impress me favorably — and I hope I’m wrong — is that the live orchestra sounded electronically amplified (miked), which led to an overbalance sometimes. This may be a function of the acoustics of Keller Auditorium, but I hope that this can be overcome in the future.

What appeared to be a full and enthusiastic house added to the excitement and anticipation of a good show. Collective buzz is infectious and fun, as were the aromas wafting in from the nut roaster in the foyer. And what’s not to like about OBT’s Boutique? I adore OBT’s Tea, which is especially blended locally just for the company. Yumm.

David Threefoot, Linda Besant,
and members of the company in
Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of
“George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'”
Photo by Emily Nash

On to the actual dancing. Act I’s kids are, of course, adorable as the party guests, and I like how Mr. Balanchine set up a bit of dramatic tension right away by NOT having Fritz (Samuel Coté) paired up with any of the girl guests as they paired up for the group dance (he ends up dancing with mom). Also enjoyable is the repartee between the Grandparents (Linda Besant and David Threefoot) and as a couple you can tell they adore each other, even if he does make her dizzy by spinning her around a little too long during the Grandfathers’ Dance (very funny). Columbine and Harlequin (Emily Parker and Alexa Domenden) were clean and clear in their assignments, with gestures based on commedia del arte. Adam Hartley nailed the flexed-footed entrechats of the Toy Soldier. While the battle choreography for the mice is appropriately on the silly side (being shot at with cheese and “hamming” it up) I’ve always felt that the bits for the Mouse King could have been amped up even more. It’s fun, but I would have liked his death scene to have had a bit more diva emoting to it. Where’s Mr. B when you need him!?

Mr. B’s skilled deployment of large numbers is evident in the Snowflakes with swirling, jumping, and ever-changing patterns (like he does very well for Act II’s Waltz of the Flowers). My only regret…and I’ve mentioned this before several times…is the waste of perfectly good and magnificent music where, in his production, he has Marie’s now over-sized bed running around the stage. I believe it’s supposed to suggest dreaming, but I really, really think it’s squandered time and would rather enjoy a Snow King/Queen duet that so many other productions do. Ah, well. Again, where’s Mr. B when you need him? Sigh…

Oregon Ballet Theatre dancer Xuan Chang,
here with Chauncey Parsons, in OBT’s production
of “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'”
Photo by James McGrew

Hot Chocolate’s leads, Kimberly Fromm and Colby Parsons smartly lead the small corps in this nice Spanish-inspired dance. While I personally know and highly respect the person on whom Coffee (Arabian) was made, the choreography is, frankly, too simple by today’s standards and each principal-level dancer cast in it, is woefully under-employed with lots of prancing about. As did Xuan Cheng, they give it their considerable all. Among the current OBT Company roster, it’s hard to think of a brighter candidate for the lead Candy Cane than Michael Linsmeier. His line is clean and the hoop jumps have great amplitude and joy. Candy Cane (aka, the Russian Dance) is always spirited and great fun.

As mentioned earlier, the Marzipan Shepherdesses encapsulate one of the most brilliant examples of Mr. B’s genius ever, with inventive pointe work — échappées that change facings, hops, complexity, and technical challenges. It’s also bright and cheerful and always a great delight. Ansa Capizzi was the lead and her turning hops on a single foot while making a dévelopée were quite good — perhaps a little more confident on one side than the other, but always calm and in control.

As Mother Ginger, Jacob Brien led in (under “her” skirt) the 8 dancing “mini’s” and had fun as this oversized character.

Members of Oregon Ballet Theatre in OBT’s production
of “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'”
Photo by Emily Nash

Dew Drop is a ballerina-level part and Kelsie Nobriga showed her mettle with strong entrances, double sauté rond de jambes en l’air, and a fearless approach to a complicated turning sequence that begins with a fouetté and morphs into more turns. Strong, strong, strong. Dew Drop is part of the famous Waltz of Flowers and here, Mr. B. deploys Hollywood-style musical pictures use of how he moves the large corps — as one, breaking them up in fours, pairs, re-connecting them, whipping them around, and ending in a bud that quickly opens. 8 minutes of good dancing and a light, colorful scene.

The apex of the Nutcracker is, for me, the Grand pas de deux, and Burton and Franc nicely delivered. He is an experienced partner and this lends itself to reassuring and bolstering the confidence of the female half of the equation. If both feel secure then you can be at ease and focus on presentation, phrasing, and “singing” the choreography rather than having to worry too much about technical stuff. Are the balances going to be there? Of course they are. Balanchine’s version places the Sugar Plum Fairy solo at the start of Act II and skips altogether the male’s solo but the Cavalier does get to begin the Coda, and so can at least show off some. This coda leads into the finale with all of the Act II characters reprising their respective themes and the ballet concludes with Marie and the Nutcracker Prince returning to her homeland.

The mighty OBT Orchestra was led by longtime maestro Niel DePonte.