Tthis year’s production of “The Victorian Nutcracker” by Portland Ballet at Merrill Auditorium is the best yet.
Why is it so good? Several elements determine the quality of a “Nutcracker.” It should be visually and dramatically delectable, with beautiful costumes, plenty of child-friendly action and a healthy dose of mystery.
Although not as all-out snazzy as some, this show scores quite well here, with fire-crackling warmth that seems to welcome the audience into the apparently candlelit party scene and colorful lushness to the second act.
More important, of course, is the quality of the dancing, which revolves in every “Nutcracker” around two main characters, Clara (re-named Olivia in this version) and the Sugar Plum Fairy. If these two are danced well, the ballet will be worth watching.
In this production, Olivia (Emily Avery) and the Sugar Plum Fairy (Megan Buckley) form a stunningly dynamic duo, form part of a tremendous trio including the Sweetheart Rose (Amelia Bielen) in “Waltz of the Flowers” and, with a few other soloists and principals, make up a balletic dream team.
In short, artistic director Eugenia L. O’Brien and associate artistic director Nell Shipman have assembled a truly remarkable amount and variety of talent for Portland Ballet Company, and this production shows them off well.
Portland Ballet, like some other companies, makes the choice of giving Olivia a more-than-traditional amount of involvement throughout the second act. This is almost always pleasing, and with Avery as Olivia it is especially so.
On Saturday afternoon, Avery showed appropriate sweetness in the party scene, clarity of dramatic expression in the battle scene and some gorgeous classical technique during duets with Bielen in “Flowers” (included outstanding balances and an excellent series of eight fouettes). The elfin-faced Bielen was strong and pretty throughout “Flowers,” with impressive balances and sparkling turns.
Buckley seems born to dance Sugar Plum Fairy, with a spun-sugar quality to match her pretty pink, sparkling tutu. On Saturday, she danced the famed solo from the pas de deux with the delicacy it deserves and the strength it requires, all while looking completely comfortable, natural and joyous.
The music for the pas de deux’s adagio is some of the most beautiful and evocative in ballet, and almost every company including Portland Ballet bases its choreography solidly on the original by Marius Petipa, who worked in close partnership with composer Tchaikovsky to create the ballet in the late 19th century.
Thus, it is a ballerina’s dream to perform, and it’s her responsibility, with her partner, to perform it well. She and Joseph Jefferies, as the Cavalier, performed the adagio very well indeed, with a synchrony of movement that could only arise from deep musicality.
Also striking was “Chinese Tea,” featuring superb new choreography by Katrina Smedal and a new dragon created by the multi-talented Shipman and carried by dancers Colleen Edwards, Meghan McCoy and Kaleigh Natale, resplendent in alternating purple and gold tights, accompanied by Ellie Sato in a brilliant solo.
“Ribbon Candy” is also newly choreographed, by CORPS director Joseph Morrissey, with a solo by Kelsey Harrison. On Saturday afternoon, Harrison performed a stunning series of fouettes, perhaps the cleanest and most spot-on performance of this challenging, whipping turn ever seen on this stage.
Other principal and solo roles include the Snow Prince and Princess, performed beautifully by Brock Hayhoe and Deborah Grammatic; Caroline Shelton and James Kramlich in the dashing solo of “Russian Caviar”; Jennifer Jones as an elastic and elegant Arabian Coffee Princess; Joshua Dow as a funny and very human Frank, Olivia’s brother; the Tin Soldier and Victorian Doll, performed with grace and mechanical precision by Kramlich and Shelton.
The only noticeable defect in “The Victorian Nutcracker” comes in a very brief but important moment: the transformation of the Nutcracker. If memory serves, in past years he turned, for reasons unclear, into the Snow Prince, soon after assuming human form.
This year, the Snow Prince is an entirely different-looking dancer and the Nutcracker seems – as confirmed by survey of children in the audience – to die after the battle. Parents would do well to assure their children that he has, instead, been magically transformed.
Otherwise, the story is told well throughout the ballet, including a nicely active party scene, an upgraded battle scene with new choreography by Shipman and a finely drawn transition to the second act’s delicious divertissements.
With so much splendid dancing and a beautiful performance by the Portland Ballet Orchestra, under Lawrence Golan, “The Victorian Nutcracker” is a true must-see. There are tickets remaining for Sunday’s matinee.
Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer who lives in Saco.