Oakland Ballet Performs Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker Paramount Theatre, Thursday, December 23, 2010
A new dance company is like a box of chocolates: You don’t know what to expect, so you have to just give each piece a try and hope it’s a tasty one. So it was with Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker, a bonbon-themed version that marked the eagerly anticipated premiere of the newly reincarnated Oakland Ballet Company. We all showed up and hoped for the best; happily, Lustig and Oakland Ballet delivered a sweet treat for all to enjoy.
Artistic director Lustig sets his Nutcracker in 1915, a time period that lends refinement to the Act I party. Hewing to tradition, the party features pastel Edwardian costumes, formal dances and buttoned-up kids who are required to wait patiently as gifts are stacked before them. Naughty Fritz torments his sister, Clara, with a dead rat and, of course, breaks her Nutcracker doll, laying the groundwork for her dream. And it’s in the dream where Lustig works some very enchanting magic.
Children dressed as rats wield forks and knives against the toy soldiers in a battle that leads not to massive rodent carnage, but culminates in an act of mercy by Clara (beautifully danced and acted by professional ballerina Stephanie Salts), who earns the esteem of all by sparing three mice from the Nutcracker’s sword. Clara’s reward is a handsome cavalier (Connolly Strombeck) and a trip to the Land of Sweets by way of the Frozen Forest, a snowy stand of birches inhabited by Snow Maidens and fluffy dancing snowballs who stole the show (surely to the great pride of the children who leapt around in those impossibly plump costumes).
Rather than a King and Queen of Snow, Lustig has Clara and her cavalier perform the pas de deux in the forest. Because Clara is played by an adult, the dance takes on a romantic sensibility and develops the theme of Clara as a girl on the edge of womanhood, which works very well—it gives Clara an arc that continues through the entire ballet, rather than making her a passive observer of the wonders of Act II.
But Lustig’s Act II is still a girl’s paradise, a brilliant and joyous world inhabited by dancing peppermints, frolicking bonbons, clowns and confectioners. Children play all of those roles, adding their natural, unwitting wit to the performance. Professional adults take on the Spanish, Arabian and Russian dances, as well as an elegant German pas de trois that substitutes for the familiar French/Shepherdess/Marzipan dance.
Complementing the festive mood Lustig has created, Zack Brown’s sets re-create a sunny garden with a stone wall (just right for the little ones to peek over and around), and his ruffled, sparkly costumes surprise and delight the eye as pastels of the party give way to petal pinks, leaf greens and baby blues, vibrant red, turquoise and gold. Music director Michael Morgan led the Oakland East Bay Symphony through a smooth performance of the score.
The party scene would benefit from more dynamic storytelling, but Sarah Bukowski, as Mrs. Stahlbaum, enlivened it with her lyricism and charisma, which were also put to good use in her acrobatic Arabian dance. Jekyns Pelaez squired Rachel Speidel Little as the Sugar Plum Fairy, while Oakland Ballet Company veteran Denise Schmalle was a standout in the Spanish dance and the Waltz of the Flowers.
As Clara, Stephanie Saltz was tasked with carrying the entire story, and she came through with her superb technique and equally fine acting ability. When she was onstage, the eye was drawn to her, and she projected the emotions of her character clearly without miming (which kids without ballet training wouldn’t understand anyway). Thanks to excellent chemistry, she and Strombeck conveyed delight in each other’s company, so vital to making the story fly.
It is something of a logistical miracle that the bicoastal Lustig (who has other projects going in New Jersey as well) was able to pull this production off at such a satisfying level after joining the company only in fall of 2010. As he gets to know the Bay Area dance community, he will be able to develop a company of consistently superb dancers who can bring every aspect of his production fully to life. Judging from the cheers of the audience, the community will be thrilled to see Oakland Ballet Company back on stage soon.