The National Ballet of Canada
by Kate Snedeker
12 December 2009 matinee -- Four Seasons Centre, Toronto, Canada
Though signs of the recent snowstorm were far and few between in downtown Toronto, the flakes flew on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. In its fourteenth year, James Kudelka’s production of “The Nutcracker” continues to entertain Torontonian audiences. Set in tsarist Russia, this version of the holiday classic is memorable for Santo Loquasto’s glorious designs and the sparkling performances of the NBoC dancers and NBS students. The spectacle of the deeply hued costumes and the infectious warmth of the dancing are more than to enough to overcome the weak storyline and Kudelka’s rather unmusical choreography.
The ballet opens in the barn of a Russian family, the two children (Marie and Misha), their stable boy friend (Peter), parents and neighbors enjoying a festive Christmas party. The evening’s entertainment is provided by the children’s slightly batty Uncle Nikolai, acted and danced with zest by the unrecognizable Noah Long. The barn set felt at once authentic and cozy, the layers of set pieces combining to create the illusion of three dimensions without sacrificing space for the story or the dance. Loquasto’s design magic continues after the intermission with a lavish setting for the Sugar Plum Fairy’s kingdom, though the stage is a bit overwhelmed by the Sugar Plum Fairy's Fabergé egg.
Fun abounds in the first two acts, with lots of Russian-esque character dance, a roller skating bear parterning a very chubby be-tutued bear en point, a dancing horse and lots of good cheer. The festivity is only slightly disturbed by the scuttling rat that gets trapped, at least for a while. Later than night, Marie and Misha begin their magical adventure when the rat – and many of its friends - return for a colorful battle complete with a living chess set and a subsequent trip to the Land of Snow.
Kudelka packs a lot of dancing into the first half of the ballet, which is a nice change from productions that spend most of their time plodding through the story. Yet, the dancing comes at the expense of the story, which gets lost in the colorful chaos. The major issue is that the title character – the Nutcracker – gets almost no face time in the party scene, so we never appreciate the connection between Marie & her Nutcracker, and thus the real world and the dream world. It becomes more a story of a magical dream, rather than a story about a Nutcracker. Kudelka also misses some opportunities to create more onstage drama – the Nutcracker’s transition from toy to living Prince (aka Peter) is very pedestrian, and the explosive flashes in the battle scene don’t seem to be distracting the eye from anything, but they did seem to scare the little kid sitting in front of me.
Kudelka’s choreographic weaknesses were most obvious in the last act, particularly in the rather frenetic solo for the bumblebee (another less than stunning costume), and a very disappointing Grand Pas de Deux. Sonia Rodriguez and Aleksandar Antonijevic as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Peter, a.k.a. the Nutcracker, were flawless, with nary a finger out of place, but they weren’t given very inspiring choreography to tackle. Tchaikovsky’s score for the Grand Pas de Deux soars, but Kudelka’s choreography seemed to work against the music, and, eschewing the traditional opening-solo-solo-codas-finale arrangement, lacked a coherent flow. There were stunning moments – a high lift that was perfectly entered and balanced, spot on supported pirouettes – but the whole was disappointing.
One however, could find absolutely no fault in the dancing. Though Antonijevic’s bravura dancing is losing power (his Russian dance seemed to lag behind the music), it would be hard to imagine any other dancer creating a more endearing, heartwarming character. He truly seemed to enjoy working with the child dancers, adding nuance to the character with fluid mime. Antonijevic also was beautifully matched with his Sugar Plum Fairy, the regal Rodriguez. (Though Loquasto’s talents seem to have failed him in the grand pas deux as the costumes were noticeably mismatched). Rodriguez, for her part, has sailed through her 20th season with NBoC with spotless technique enhanced by mature artistry
Megan Storm Hill and Sebastian Lecomte were delightful as Marie and Misha, ably tackling the extensive mime and dance demanded of the young leads. Noah Long nearly stole the show as the dynamic, leaping Uncle Nikolai, his long coats constantly awhirl. Also of note was Etienne Lavigne as the father and the Spanish Chocolate quintet (Marissa Parzei, Jordana Daumec, Christopher Stalzer, Elena Lobsanova and Naoya Ebe).
Choreographic weaknesses aside, this is a Nutcracker that leaves you warm and fuzzy, with lots of holiday good cheer. Hopefully the Toronto weather will cooperate and contribute some real flakes to the festivities!