THERE was little magic on view Tuesday night when the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre opened a seven-performance run of "The Nutcracker" at Orange County's Segerstrom Hall. Founded in 1966, the 44-member company, now under the artistic direction of Yuri Petukhov, who also choreographed the flailing-arm, empty-at-the-core production, received little help from Vladimir Artemev's erratic conducting of the Pacific Symphony.
As for the charm of falling snowflakes, one would do better going to Buffalo -- or at least the Grove, where a nightly faux snow shower provides more awe than the disco-ball-light snow effect that is part of E. Rapay's skimpy, painted-flat sets (he also designed the costumes). Making use of E.T.A. Hoffmann's original story, Petukhov and I. Belski's adaptation also failed to transport one back to the 18th century.
But sometimes great dancing can.
Alas, this was not quite the case, in spite of Sergey Davidov's inspired, swashbuckling Drosselmeier, the toymaker charged with cheering up a Christmas Eve party and, in so doing, making his creations, pesky nutcracker included, come to terpsichorean life.
Possessing a long, elegant line and tossing off numerous corkscrew jumps, Davidov did his best to propel the action, with mother and father, Nina Karlinskaya and Alexandr Burov, joining the velvet-clad guests in a pointy-toed parlor dance.
As the drunken granddad (think Rip Taylor on spiked eggnog), Vladislav Misnic wobbled and mugged his way through the night, until Maria, a lovely but painfully thin Alexandra Badina, falls asleep. Accompanied by swelling glissandi, the Christmas tree demanding Miracle-Gro managed to feebly rise, a battle ensuing between sword-wielding soldiers and a bevy of mice, the latter led by Alexandr Pyatovski in full-throttle, marching, jigging, mouse mode.
Springing to life, Alexey Petrov's Nutcracker counterattacks, letting loose a barrage of one-legged turns only to witness Maria hurling a shoe at the rodent and win the war. The stage-framing arches turn icy blue as Maria wondrously finds herself in the company of a now-regal prince.
She bourrees, falling backward into his arms, their partnership not quite sealed with a series of pirouettes and lifts in which his one-armed raises prove problematic. The Russians, known for their beautiful, crisp corps work, disappoint here, with 16 snowflakes executing sloppy unisons and Busby Berkeley-like formations punctuated by perpetually wriggling fingers.
Blessings arrive with Irina Kirsanova and Maria Petukhov, the wife and tiny daughter of the artistic director, who smile and skitter across the stage in virginal white angel gear, before Maria and prince are shuttled through the air in a swan sleigh, the wires all too visible.
Happily, some wonderful dancing helped salvage the second act: Saori Koike and Egor Motuzov were superb as the fan-brandishing, high-leaping Chinese dancers; Anastasia Lubomudrova and Oleg Sidorov undulated sensuously as the Arabian duo; and a deft, squat-kicking Igor Ivanov also twirled Maria Yakshanova with glee.
Unsteady in their solo variations, Badina and Petrov never really connected in a production needing buckets of fairy dust.
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Price: $25 to $85
Info: (714) 556-2787; www.ocpac.org