The Academy of Music
December 22, 2023, afternoon
George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’
Sigrid Payne DaVeiga
Philadelphia was aglow this year with throngs of people out in full force for the holiday season. On this Friday afternoon, lights were already twinkling in Dilworth Park as families and crowds crossed Broad Street and strolled down the Avenue of the Arts in Philadelphia. The Academy of Music was warm and bright with sparkling Christmas trees and large gold nutcracker statues. The energy in the lobby and the auditorium was buzzing with the excitement of guests coming to the matinee performance of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” some maybe for the first time after a pandemic interlude and some maybe for the first time ever.
Many of the moments in this year’s performance were the nostalgic and iconic things we have come to know and love about this magical holiday story, but there were many little bits of new magic that made this production just a little bit more special and dare it be said, some audience members’ favorite. The opening phrases of Tchaikovsky’s familiar tunes, played by the impeccable Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Na’Zir McFadden and Beatrice Jona Affron, began as the stage lights came up and the gorgeous backdrop of the lush Stahlbaum home appeared. The scenic design by Peter Horne was simply exquisite. The painted windows with figures inside each one and the snow on the eaves of the painted scene were so detailed that it felt like one was looking into a holiday storybook. As this scrim lifted the audience caught first sight of the children, Marie, danced by Evelyn Kuo, and Fritz, danced by Casey J. Davis. These young dancers set the tone for this production as an event full of children, the next incredible generation of dancers that captured our hearts from the outset of the show.
In a message from the leadership of Philadelphia Ballet in the program, David F. Hoffman, Angel Corella and Shelly Power describe the commitment to cultivating the next generation of performers and innovators in the arts. Of the 177 dancers in this year’s production, almost 130 of them were students from School of Philadelphia Ballet, School of Philadelphia Ballet-New Jersey and Metropolitan Ballet Academy. The power of their presence on stage was truly impressive and compelling. The hard work and training required for participation in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” is arduous for adults. The stunning accuracy and perfect delivery of this story by so many children in one production was extraordinarily impressive.
The children were an absolute highlight in this year’s party scene, as the Angels, the Polichenelles and simply everywhere where they appeared on stage. Their acting was impeccable, making the audience believe and feel everything, from a sweet hug between Marie and the late party arrivals, to the fury of Fritz as he bickers with Marie. The absolute gem of their inclusion though was the battle scene in Act I. The Soldiers in this scene were quite small and when they entered the stage, they stood so straight and tall and aligned so perfectly they actually looked like small toys in a box. Their small size was a sublime contrast to the size of the mice who appeared to be three or even four times as large from the audience. Their battle with the mice was so much fun to watch as they remained steadfast and stalwart in their dancing, embodying the feeling of courage and earnestness as they fought their large foes. The costumes, by Judanna Lynn, were stunning throughout the production, but particularly noteworthy in the battle scene. Every detail, from the cheese on the mouse overcoats to the shoulder pinnings and tassles against the bright red in the soldier jackets glistened and sparkled so much the audience was transported to a true animation of this event.
The absolute power of the children in this production truly culminated in the performance by Ethan Ross as Drosselmeier’s Nephew, The Nutcracker. He drew audience members in from the moment he entered the stage with his amicable and delightful Herr Drosselmeier, danced and acted impeccably by Arian Molina Soca. Their interactions were warm and charismatic and these set the stage for the audience to want to follow Ross as the little Nutcracker Prince throughout his journey in this tale. Ross was not only a technically precise and talented dancer, his storytelling and stage presence was especially noteworthy in a dancer so young.
Truly, though, the character that stole the show at today’s performance may be one of the most underrecognized roles in the Nutcracker tale. Gabriela Mesa danced the role of Frau Stahlbaum. Her costume was a gorgeous ruby red and covered with gold details and her hair was set with large red feathers. At first, her costume was the thing that seemed to draw the audience’s eye to her, but as Act I progressed, she quickly became a surprising centerpiece for the entire tale. Her dancing is obviously delightful with clean lines and grace of movement clear even from under her flowing party gown, but her stage presence and ability to tell the story made it such that the eye always came back to her. She seemed to embody a sweet and powerful maternal force, bringing joy and love to everyone in her space. The children flocked to her consistently and her warm smile and embraces created what felt like the meaning of Christmas and the magic of a space filled with love. One of the most unexpectedly breathtaking moments of the show was the moment when she is running through the Stahlbaum home searching for Marie in the night. She moves gracefully and quickly across the stage through the set of the great hall in the home. Her hair was down and flowing and she was wrapped in a shawl and carrying a candlestick. Her concern as she searched for Marie was palpable and her relief upon finding her is collaborative with every person in the audience who has searched for someone they cannot find. Mesa is absolutely one to watch as a dancer and performer in upcoming productions by Philadelphia Ballet.
Act I transitioned beautifully into a traditional dance of The Snowflakes. The sparkling little snowflakes fell from the sky in the white lights and were matched by the incredible corps’ technical and beautiful delivery of the recognizable and iconic choreography. Act II was consistently delightful in The Land of The Sweets. The audience was awed by the little angels and their beautiful wings and by Alexandra Heier as The Sugarplum Fairy. Highlights in Act II were Thayz Golz as a sinewy and seductive Coffee and Mayara Pineiro leading the energetic and whimsical Hot Chocolate alongside Sterling Baca. Jacqueline Callahan was a lovely and breathtaking Dewdrop amongst the beautiful Flowers and an audience favorite. Alexandra Heier and Jack Thomas as The Sugarplum Fairy and Her Cavalier captured every single one of the iconic picture perfect Nutcracker moments in their lifts, turns, jumps and closing poses. The audience was truly delighted and collectively gasped at the moment when Heier holds her attitude en pointe and glides across the stage as Thomas held her hand and pulled her gently along like she was floating.
All in all, Philadelphia Ballet’s 2023 production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” was a magical way to experience the holiday season. The promise of new expression and new generations of performers was an incredibly special highlight of this production, alongside the commitment to the integrity of this much beloved holiday tale. That this jewel of an event was a reason for audiences to return to the theater in Philadelphia was clear by the packed audience. As Marie and Fritz flew away in their little boat into the sky waving good-bye to the audience, the hope for what comes next from Philadelphia Ballet was abuzz in the air as everyone departed this wonderful production.