Never underestimate the importance of symbolism. Misty Copeland, American Ballet Theatre’s first black principal dancer, was the lead ballerina in the opening night of Segerstrom Hall’s presentation of ABT’s “The Nutcracker.”
Opening night is an honor, and it was a mighty important distinction Friday at the sold out Costa Mesa 3,000-seat venue.
The crowd loves her, this hometown gal. There was a high-decibel roar — a groundswell that knocked you back in your chair, actually — every time she danced. It was humbling to experience, and based on her facial expressions, it affected Copeland, too.
But she was not the only reason to cheer as the New York company returned for its annual “Nutcracker” engagement. Alexei Ratmansky’s version of the classic more than holds up. It proved to be as exciting, delightfully charming and choreographically intricate as it was on first viewing a year ago. This is a “Nutcracker” so woven with story threads and rollicking details that the spectator sees new aspects with every viewing. Who would have thought that was possible which such overly sweet source material?
Despite slight mishaps — a corps member landing on her bum, a guy carelessly tossing one of those delicate Flowers — the dancers’ performances keep rising by notches. Ratmansky’s coaching, the way he orders steps so crescendo follows crescendo, and the accents he embeds in musical phrases obviously inspire. There’s an urgency and edginess in the dancing at ABT. The audience is tricked into thinking the steps are being done for the first time.
Copeland was cast as the grown-up Clara/Princess and paired with star and veteran principal Herman Cornejo as the Nutcracker/Prince. Since her days in the corps de ballet, Copeland has excelled at speedy delivery, arcing leaps and high extensions. Promoted to principal last year, she has newfound pliancy, and is filling in her gaps with new expressiveness, finding value in the infinite possibilities of subtle gestures.
Cornejo made a perfect partner for Copeland, matching her athleticism while raising the ante by two with his exquisite musicality and pitch-perfect romanticism. Each brought out the best in the other, which, of course, is what the best pairings do.
As their child counterparts, Ava McLarand was an eager Clara, believable at every emotional extreme, from thrilled to afraid to astonished, and Joshua Binowitz, the Nutcracker Boy, excelled in both his dancing and acting duties. Chase Rogers, last year’s Little Mouse, has graduated to a terrifically spunky Fritz, while Kellan Hayag playfully executed the impish antics of that Little Mouse. The throngs of other children, who perform multiple parts, have been well-rehearsed and they easily handled their fleet-footed parts.
So, too, did all the ABT soloists. Standouts included Thomas Forster as both the Mouse King and the put-upon Arabian man with a prickly harem; springy, high-jumping Joseph Gorak and Gemma Bond as the Chinese dancers; Roman Zhurbin as the mysterious Drosselmeyer; and Cassandra Trenary and Skylar Brandt as mechanical dolls.
This production is all about love and enchantment, and Richard Hudson’s evocative sets and opulent yet whimsical costumes enhance those themes, while Jennifer Tipton’s lighting designs supply bright optimism and scary shadows.
The Pacific Symphony musicians, led by conductor Charles Barker, emphasized every sparkling facet of the Tchaikovsky score, with help from the Southern California Children’s Chorus. We will look forward to next year.
American Ballet Theatre’s “Nutcracker”
Where: Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Through Dec. 18 (dancer lineup varies by performance)
Tickets: $29 to $199
Infomation: (714) 556-2787 or scfta.org
Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.