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Ballet West is preparing to take its "Nutcracker" to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., this week, and judging by Friday's opening night at the Capitol Theater, they're ready.
The prestigious invitation to perform in D.C. cuts Dec. 5-9 out of the Salt Lake City run, but when incoming BW board president Victor Rickman revealed that President Barack Obama had been invited to the Kennedy Center performance and opening reception hosted by Zions Bank, it was hard to find fault with cutting a few shows locally. If the Obamas do attend, I can confidently advise them to bring the whole family.
One reason I think the first family would enjoy our "Nutcracker" is that it's a distinctly American and theatrical work choreographed by 20th-century ballet pioneer and BW founder Willam Christensen. Willam and his brothers, Harold and Lew Christensen, were contemporaries of George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein. While Balanchine was making New York a ballet stronghold in the East, the Christensen brothers established classical ballet in the western United States including the renowned San Francisco Ballet.
In addition, the brothers traveled the country on the American vaudeville circuit billed as a ballet act. That theatrical experience grounded their approach to dance as story-telling and inspired the invitingly warm Act I of "The Nutcracker," fondly known as the family party scene.
But Act I is anything but static. It is lively, humorous and honest. Conducted on Friday by Jared Oaks, the Utah Chamber Orchestra kept the tempo quick without being fast, and the children who populate this scene are dancing more and pantomiming less. The young girl dancers execute full-out glissade, pas de chat combinations, and each year one little boy steals my heart although it wouldn't be fair to reveal which one. The scene is always evolving, and in this cast soloist Beau Pearson portrays the peculiar Dr. Drosselmeyer with a scene-stealing Keith Richards' swagger.
Also in this cast, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, and the Snow Queen and her Cavalier, are real-life married couples. It makes one picture their living rooms cleared of furniture for extra rehearsal during Nutcracker season because each of their pas de deux was exquisite. The Snow couple, Haley Anderson Smith and Easton Smith, came to Ballet West from performing in the Broadway show "Billy Elliott," and their quality performance draws in each member of the audience individually.
To say principal dancers Christiana Bennett and Christopher Ruud danced the Grand Pas de Deux with perfection would be selling them short. Bennett masterfully builds the pas slowly. She doesn't give it all away in the first minute, but instead reels the movement out a little bit at a time, leaving the audience hungry for more. Ruud is a danseur extraordinaire. His partnering is precise, selfless and confident. Together, their dancing is somehow spare yet filled with emotion.
The Mother Buffoon character was especially entertaining Friday with Alexander MacFarlan as the exasperated mother of seven little out-of-control buffoons. As in any family, it takes two to keep these kids in check as they go flipping across the stage and charming the audience. Ronald Tilton was great as the feet-half of the costume, which requires enormous coordination to pull off the gag.
Soloist Christopher Sellars was fabulous as the lead in the Russian Dance. First soloist Arolyn Williams was precise and vibrant as the lead Mirliton. And Allison DeBona and Katlyn Addison were sassy and dynamic in the Spanish Dance.
Ballet West's 'The Nutcracker'
Bottom Line • The Nutcracker is highly energized this year, and even if you've seen it before, there are new details that spring out in this particular reincarnation.
When • Reviewed Friday, Nov. 30; continues through Dec. 29, 7 p.m.; with 2 p.m. matinees
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $19-$75, at 801-355-ARTS, arttix.org
Running time • Exactly two hours with one 15 minute intermission.