When Grand Rapids Ballet created a new version of “The Nutcracker” last year, the world premiere was extremely successful with many sold out shows. This year is no different. “The Nutcracker” opened last weekend on Dec. 11-13 to a full house, and tickets are already selling out for next weekend’s shows on Dec. 18-20. Grand Rapids Ballet gave a strong performance of “The Nutcracker” on opening weekend that showcased Grand Rapids Ballet’s ability to create a production that engages the audience with the story and featured strong classical ballet technique.
The current version of “The Nutcracker” is the result of a creative collaboration between Grand Rapids Ballet, popular children’s book author/illustrator Christ Van Allsburg, Tony award-winning set designer Eugene Lee and internationally acclaimed choreographer Val Caniparoli. Even though Grand Rapids Ballet’s traditional “Nutcracker” was already a favorite West Michigan holiday activity, Grand Rapids Ballet wanted to create a new version that was unique to West Michigan and gave a fresh voice to the classic ballet. Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director Patricia Barker and Creative Director Michael Auer worked with the creative team of Van Allsburg, Lee and Caniparoli to build a production that would honor the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky’s music, and the traditions from Marius Petipa’s first “Nutcracker” ballet. Auer translated the Hoffmann story. Barker designed the costumes.
Chris Van Allsburg created the production artwork and worked with the set designer Eugene Lee to create luscious backdrops with realistic inviting scenes. The backdrops made many scenes appear like a living painting when paired with skillful dancing, lovely costumes and sharp special effects. For example, street lamps lit up on a street scene backdrop. It began to snow in the background on the backdrop featuring a close-up of Drosselmeier’s face in a winter scene. A Christmas tree grew to an enormous size with a combination of projections and a backdrop to introduce Clara to her dream world prior to the battle scene. When Clara and the Nutcracker Prince sailed across Lemonade Lake in a boat driven by dolphins to the Marzipan Castle, the pairing of the backdrop, the swimming dolphins, the boat, and the cloud-like waves created a truly magical effect. All of these elements were a strong point of “The Nutcracker’s” opening weekend. The lighting, projection and special effects by Paul Miller and Shawn Boyle were top notch and helped draw the audience into the Clara’s dream world at the opening night performance.
Val Caniparoli’s choreography brought new life into the traditional dance numbers. Caniparoli’s choreography evoked a lot of emotion in many dance sequences. Drosselmeier and Clara’s interactions created a sense of the warmth between a doting godfather who wants to make Christmas special for his favorite godchild. There was humor in dance numbers like the mother mouse chasing after her child, Drosselmeier balancing gifts with his assistants, and Fritz trying to annoy his older sister, Clara. The Russian Caviar number was simply fun with its athleticism and energetic cheer. The pas de deux numbers between Clara and the Nutcracker Prince were extremely romantic. The choreography emphasized important aspects of each character. Caniparoli choreographed on a cast that captured the spirit of each character.
The opening night cast captured the essence of the classic Christmas story. Kiana Clay played young Clara with a fresh enthusiasm and sweetness, and danced the part well with Attila Mosolygo’s Drosselmeier. Mosolygo’s Drosselemeier was equal parts the mysterious magician-like figure and the loving godparent. It was a spellbinding moment when young Clara transformed into an adult as Dream Clara, portrayed by Yuka Oba, and the Nutcracker toy turned into the human Nutcracker Prince, played by Nicholas Schultz. It is Oba and Schultz as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince who danced the snow pas de deux instead of the snow queen and wind king. Oba’s Clara also danced the grand pas de deux at Marzipan Castle with the Nutcracker Prince instead of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Oba was luminous as Dream Clara and danced with graceful precision and skillful leg extensions. Schultz and Oba danced the Snow pas de deux and the Marzipan Castle grand pas de deux with tenderness, joy and seamless partnering skills. Schultz’s Nutcracker Prince showed great athleticism and precision in his dance technique.
Other noteworthy mentions from the opening night performance of “The Nutcracker,” include the Russian Caviar, the Sugar Plum Fairy, Snowflakes and Waltz of the Flowers numbers. Steven Houser, Jack Lennon and Nigel Tau performed a crowd-pleasing Russian Caviar number on opening night. Their athletic and happy version of the Russian folk dancing number had the audience clapping in time with the music and even cheering the end of the sequence. Dawnell Dryja’s Sugar Plum Fairy danced with fluid grace. The corps de ballet gave beautiful performances in the Snowflakes and the Waltz of the Flowers numbers. Their strong classical ballet technique captured the essence of the traditional dances and conveyed the graceful movements of falling snow and a field of flowers.
Grand Rapids Ballet will present four more shows of “The Nutcracker” next weekend, Dec. 18-20. The shows are so popular that the Sunday Dec. 20 show has already sold out, with limited tickets available for the other three shows. For more information on available tickets and show times, visit Grand Rapids Ballet’s website or call their box office at 616-454-4771, ext. 10.