Review

American Ballet Theatre's new 'Nutcracker' makes an old tradition feel young

Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has made his own Christmas miracle: a joyful “Nutcracker” ballet that is ravishing and clever enough to inspire multiple viewings. Cynical adults who feel dragged to holiday entertainment may love it even more passionately than their children will. Lucky us — it is to be presented annually at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.

That is where American Ballet Theatre presented the two-hour production for the first time in Southern California on Thursday night. Ratmansky, who trained at the Bolshoi and then continued his apprenticeship in the West, has scooped up myriad themes from E.T.A. Hoffman’s original children’s book, and from Lev Ivanov’s 1892 first ballet, and has culled their most salient points.

The indelible story of a rambunctious family Christmas party and little Clara’s subsequent colorful dream has been more recently portrayed as her blossoming from girl into woman. While other contemporary ballets have made that concept somewhat tawdry, Ratmansky’s version overflows with both honesty and innocence. The whole ballet is about the transformative power of love — of parents, family, friends and, yes, partners — in all its wondrousness.

Ratmansky's setup is smart, without pretension. Instead of a toy Nutcracker, he casts a real boy in the role for much of the ballet. In the soaring musical interlude that bridges the fight and snow scenes, the stage is empty but for two couples — the youngsters Clara and Nutcracker Boy, and their enamored grown-up versions, here called Princess and Prince. Twin duets ensue that are richly poignant in their appropriate differences, setting up the concluding grand pas de deux, when the adult doppelgangers take over the Sugar Plum Fairy-Cavalier roles for a cathartic finale.

If anything is missing in Ratmansky’s entirely new choreography, it’s virtuosic display. Instead, the dancers pull out the stops with elaborate, fast-footed small steps, allegro combinations that are harder than they might look. For instance, in the Waltz of the Flowers, the four cavaliers, suited up hilariously as tuxedoed bumblebees, toss the ballerinas in quick succession, avoiding airborne collisions by seconds. That, plus the Busby Berkeley-esque waves of complex human patterns make this waltz one of the most astounding and beautiful you’ll ever see.

In the first act, choreographer and scenic and costume designer Richard Hudson (who partnered with Ratmansky on ABT’s “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Romeo and Juliet” for National Ballet of Canada) turn the 19th-century Stahlbaum home into topsy-turvy chaos reminiscent of the “Alice in Wonderland” stories. The house pictured on the front drop is tilted, while Clara observes the fight scene from a giant chair. (The family Christmas tree, alas, does not truly grow but is replaced by a cheap-looking one, which is the ballet’s biggest disappointment.)

Storytelling and character development are Ratmansky’s aces; indeed, the second act variations are danced mini-stories. The ABT dancers plus all the nearly 50 local children brought gusto to their parts.

Gillian Murphy, stepping into the lead on short notice, showed off her lofty balance and generous elan as the Princess. Marcelo Gomes made a valiant, sensitive Prince, a dream partner in every way. Kudos to the child leads, imported from New York: Claudia Schuman made a sweet, willowy Clara; Seth Koffler was a rhythmically sharp Nutcracker Boy; George Buford was a jaunty Little Mouse; while Justin Souriau-Levine was the oh-so-obnoxious Fritz (they alternate with local children).

The corps de ballet deserves special mention for the oversized sweep displayed in the snow and flower scenes. If only that toe-shoe clatter could be lessened.

ABT conductor Ormsby Wilkins and the Pacific Symphony players made sure Tchaikovsky was as well-served as the dancers.

“The Nutcracker”: American Ballet Theatre
When: Through Dec. 20
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Tickets: $29 to $240
Info: (714) 556-2787 or scfta.org

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