PORTLAND – Portland Ballet Company’s “The Victorian Nutcracker” provided a very welcome oasis of beauty and charm amid the inevitable crescendo of holiday preparations Friday.
“The Victorian Nutcracker” is very theatrical in spirit, with many interesting dramatic touches and a nice continuity between the first-act party scene and the divertissements of the second act.
The production is in constant evolution, thanks to a collaborative approach between artistic director Eugenia L. O’Brien and her artistic staff, so that each year’s show is likely to have a few surprises to delight even the most Nutcracker-jaded in the audience.
O’Brien has gathered some wonderful talent to Portland Ballet in recent years, including associate artistic director Nell Shipman and several outstanding principal dancers and soloists. “Nutcracker” choreography is credited to Shipman, Nicole Getchell and Katrina Smedal.
The name “The Victorian Nutcracker” may seem redundant to music aficionados; after all, “The Nutcracker” premiered at Russia’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1892, well within the Victorian period.
What earns the name is, rather, the production’s aesthetic reflection of Victorian-era Portland, more particularly the Victoria Mansion, a National Historic Landmark. Characters are renamed after Victoria residents and friends, including locally resonant names such as James Phinney Baxter and Hermann Kotzschmar. The girl who receives the Nutcracker, usually Maria or Clara, is Olivia Higgins, and her brother is Frank.
The ballet opens with a charming and funny puppet show, synopsizing the action to come. The first-act Christmas Eve party is rich with lush costuming and intricate theatrical detail.
Tchaikovsky composed “The Nutcracker” with unusually specific ties between music and action, leaving little for a purist to change outright. Productions vary greatly, though, in their approach to dramatic and choreographic detail.
One of the first instances of the value of this production’s storytelling efforts comes when Frank breaks the Nutcracker, a standard element of the first act.
Here, we see an unusual degree of both motivation and moderation. Frank is disappointed in his own gift, spurring jealousy of Olivia’s. The breakage seems more accidental, less intentional, than usual, which rings truer.
Enhanced storytelling continues as Olivia (Emily Avery) and the Nutcracker-giving Godfather (John Saccone) appear throughout the ballet.
Saccone is clearly the magic-maker in the Kingdom of Sweets, and Avery dances with both the Snowflakes and the Flowers, as well as the tiny Polichinelles who emerge from the skirts of Mother Ginger (Vanessa Beyland).
At Friday’s matinee, Avery’s dancing was exquisite throughout the ballet. Sweet and childlike in the first act and with the Polichinelles, she showed great technical expertise and wonderfully nuanced musicality in the classical waltzes.
As the Snow Princess, Megan Buckley was elegant with a very classical line and beautiful legs, feet and pointework. Brett Emmons partnered her well despite height disparity, particularly in gliding supported leaps.
Megan McCoy and Ashton Plummer gave a neat, lithe and personality-rich Spanish Chocolate, while Morgan Sanborn and Derek Clifford brought dignity and elegance to Arabian Coffee, with some unusual, gorgeous lifts.
Caroline Shelton and Matthew Begin contributed a rousing Russian Caviar, with dramatic kicks and leaps from Begin and pretty, strong and quick dancing from Shelton.
Deborah Grammatic performed the Sugar Plum Fairy with refined joyfulness and precision, with the powerful Joseph Jefferies, whose spinning turns and flying leaps never fail to impress, as her Cavalier.
Portland Ballet’s orchestra is always excellent, and this year the musicians were in their usual fine form, under the direction of guest conductor Sean Newhouse.
Remarkably, this was Newhouse’s very first experience conducting “Nutcracker,” and nearly his first conducting for dance. This is a very challenging job for any conductor, but Newhouse did fabulously. With few exceptions, he facilitated perfect tempos for the dancers, and he conveyed obvious delight in the score.
Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer who lives in Saco.