"The Nutcracker" is ballet pure and simple: E.T.A. Hoffman's story begins with a cheerful family Christmas party and ends in a child's fantasy world of twirling snowflakes and waltzing flowers in a magical kingdom of dreams, all set to Tchaikovsky's familiar score.
Everything is exactly as it should be in Ballet West's just-opened version. Utah audiences never tire of this holiday chestnut because there is something reassuring about the familiar. We love already knowing that the Christmas tree is going to grow, or even that the two male characters are going to bump into each other before entering the house.
Slight changes in costumes and sets are a welcome return to a more traditional look, and adjustments in the mechanics of Mother Buffoon's character give the dancers a chance to add humor and delight to the scene. But the pantomimed storytelling in Act I, the party scene needs to be more varied and animated, although Peter Christie managed to enliven his character, Herr Stahlbaum.
The highlights of this ballet are in the solos, variations and pas de deux, although some of the choreography looked edited, diminishing the excitement in such sections as The Snow Queen and The Snowflakes.
At the end of Act II, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier steal the show with a Grand Pas de Deux that highlights the elegant precision of principal dancer Christiana Bennett, regally partnered by Seth Olson. Also notable was the graceful Annie Breneman and her passionate partner Hua Zhuang in the Waltz of the Flowers.
The freshest performance of the evening was by Josey Silva and Christopher Anderson who spiced up the Arabian Dance in Act II. Silva is a dynamo whose upper body has a lovely, expressive arch. Dancer Kate Crews is exciting, but once again her talents were confined to razzle-dazzle moves, this time as a Spanish Dancer. It would be worth returning on Dec. 13, 15 or 16 to see her as the Snow Queen.
Although Salt Lake City audiences have grown to love Willam F. Christensen's "Nutcracker," there are more innovative versions performed across the country. Perhaps next year would be a good time for the company's yet-to-be hired artistic director to pursue new ways of staging the seasonal tradition. A redesign this year of the customary party scene with a richer color palette was an excellent choice, as were other property changes. But the party scene needs a more inviting approach. Choreography used by Houston Ballet and previously by Cincinnati Ballet, by Ben Stevenson, uses humor and overlapping action to build and keep momentum, for example. A change in choreography wouldn't need to be as extreme as Mark Morris' "Hard Nut," just more demanding.
It would also challenge the student dancers, who make "The Nutcracker" a wonderful experience for us as the audience and for them as aspiring dancers. These children are good dancers, and appear to be capable of more than basic steps.
In the end, trip to "The Nutcracker" is worth packing up family and friends to enjoy live theater, experience Salt Lake's vital downtown, and establish a joyful community tradition.
Ballet West's "The Nutcracker"
* WHERE: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City.
* WHEN: Saturday; continues most days through Dec. 30 with evening performances at 7 p.m., matinees at 2 p.m.
* RUNNING TIME: Two hours, including one 10-minute intermission.
* TICKETS: $17 to $65 at ArtTix outlets, the venue box office, by calling 801-355-ARTS or at www.arttix.org.
* BOTTOM LINE: While the party scene could use a makeover, this slightly tweaked version of the holiday classic is an enjoyable live theater experience.