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Ballet San Jose's Nutcracker: A Hard Nut to Crack

December 7, 2012

Ballet San Jose

A new Nutcracker was born Friday at Ballet San Jose. Clad in a layette borrowed from American Ballet Theatre — which as creative partner has provided, for a fee, steady infusions of help via artistic advisor Wes Chapman, since the great coup of 2011 that ousted Ballet San Jose cofounder Dennis Nahat. The new production was choreographed by company veteran Karen Gabay, who even wrote a poem to describe the new plot. It’s pretty confusing, not to mention the fact that the poem is based on Clement Moore’s classic (and here uncredited) The Night Before Christmas, which has nothing to do with the Nutcracker, which simply makes matters knottier. Or nuttier. But onward.

The magic of the NutcrackerWe’re dealing here with an amalgam of the old tale beloved by Ballet San Jose audiences and most others across the country, about a Nutcracker, a handsome prince, a Christmas party, a girl called Clara or Marie depending on the production and perhaps the weather, a fabulous glowing, growing Christmas tree, a mouse king, and a visit to a far-off land, where snowflakes, flowers, and people from many ethnicities all dance, as do sugarplum fairies. This one has all that and a variation on The Hard Nut, the story by ETA Hoffmann, which choreographer Mark Morris incorporated into his great creation, on view this month in Berkeley. Does any of this make sense? Didn’t think so. In The Hard Nut, a princess has been felled by an evil rat king, and if a suitor is successful in cracking a hard nut by biting it open, the princess will awaken and marry said suitor. In a nutshell.

That tale has been incorporated into Ballet San Jose’s party scene as a little playlet within the ballet, a headscratcher full of indecipherable mime. (Sadly, few people in the audience understand the mime gestures dating from the 19th century anymore. Maybe there should be subtitles.)

There are sumptuous costumes by the fabulous Theoni V. Aldredge, amazing sets (Paul Kelly), sparkling lighting (David K H. Elliott), and best of all, the Tchaikovsky score, brought to life, juicy life, by George Daugherty, and the Symphony Silicon Valley, with the Cantabile Youth Singers.

But nobody goes to the Nutcracker for the plot. They go to see the children dance in the party scene, pop out from Mother Ginger’s skirts or add charm to the story; taking a turn as snow flurries, blossoms, buds, tiny big-bellied mice. They go for the Nutcracker, before and after he turns into a prince. They go for the fantasy, for the flash, for the show, and this one is, in the main, a great escape. There’s some prodigious dancing and energy. There are sumptuous costumes by the late and fabulous Theoni V. Aldredge, amazing sets (Paul Kelly), sparkling lighting (David K H. Elliott), and (knowing for whom I write), best of all, the Tchaikovsky score, brought to life, juicy life, by George Daugherty, newly appointed music director, and the Symphony Silicon Valley, with the Cantabile Youth Singers. Live music has been promised for the entire Ballet San Jose season of three programs. Let us celebrate that, as well as some lively programing choices (but why a “Green Table” when the Joffrey is bringing theirs to Cal Performances?) and let us deliver a few hopes in relation to what is currently on view.

First, that if Alexsandra Meijer is to continue as queen bee in a company with many deserving talents besides her own, she is paired with a better partner than Jeremy Kovitch. Newly appointed a principal dancer, he is strong and enthusiastic and survived a virtual pentathlon of lifts and leaps, but as a classical danseur he is out of his depth.

Second, that the Nutcracker story reverts to some intelligible, hard-nut-less version, preferably one in which a grown woman like Meijer does not run around in a nightie and simper when she’s kissed on the cheek. It even looked weird when the great ABT ballerina Gelsey Kirkland did it, and her partner was Baryshnikov. Meijer or the alter-Marie can still dance the princessy tutu-and-tiara section of Act 2.

Third, that the aforementioned most able members of the company are permitted to shine in upcoming shows as they did in every instance of the Nutcracker’s second-act variations. Among the standouts: Shannon Bynum and Jing Zhang in Spanish; the sensuous Arabian trio of Maximo Califano, Beth Ann Namey, and lovely San Francisco Ballet alumna Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun; Akira Takahashi, Junna Ige, and Mirai Noda, angling vibrantly through the Chinese variation; Amy Marie Briones, spinning and leaping brilliantly through the Russian dance, and, well, just about every waltzing flower up there. Versatility prize, hands down, goes to Damir Emric as Mere Maxine and the Rat King.

Fourth, the production needs a more energized snow scene, with something eye-catching at the start to lead into a more powerful finish. These advanced students looked raring to go. They could handle a bigger challenge.

High marks to Karen Gabay for taking this on. The dances that worked bespoke her years of experience onstage and behind the scenes. I first saw her perform with the Eglevsky Ballet in the 1980s — she was a baby, or at most, a teenager — and her choreography for this production is much as she has always seemed in performance, graceful, well-focused and uncontrived. Underscoring those qualities in a thoughtful revision might make this an easier nut to crack.

Janice Berman was an editor and senior writer at New York Newsday. She is a former editor in chief of Dance Magazine.