For many families, nothing marks the Christmas season like the 50-year tradition of The Nutcracker. There are countless productions in the San Diego region, and California Ballet markets itself as the oldest and biggest production. It’s also the only company to have the San Diego Symphony play Tchaikovsky’s adored score.
While all of that is true, let’s acknowledge the big old nut in the room. California Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker is due for a complete makeover.
As we watched the production on Thursday (Dec. 19) at the Civic Theatre, my companions and I were struck by the old faded sets and costumes. The choreography was even less inspired than I remembered from 2011.
Artistic director Maxine Mahon and Catherine Hand designed the sets years ago, and no surprise, they have not aged well. Costumes are threadbare if you get close.
Instead of sumptuous, saturated reds, blues and greens in the party scene, Herr Drosselmeyer, parents, rambunctious kids, and Clara get lost in a flat one-dimensional wasteland. Less inviting, the Kingdom of the Sweets scene has faded to blah pastel pink. Clara (Jaya Dhand, alternating with Jordan Nasfi, and Melanie Ziment) is left to sit for the longest time on a throne in a kingdom of cardboard instead of brilliantly colored candies.
Many Americans are loyal to Balanchine’s version from 1954, but even he changed things around and updated his choreography from year-to-year. By contrast, Mahon has not spiffed up this production for years. Well, that’s tradition, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, some will say. Still, if ballet is going to excite, not just survive, the art has to evolve and challenge both viewers and dancers.
Why not restage a new battle scene with an edge? Have the bloated mice dance instead of jiggle. Have young men take the role of the dancing boy rag doll. Smart children in the audience know the difference. They look and move differently. And it is time to update the tired Chinese Tea divertissement. Ditch the bobble heads and cardboard tea kettle, and trash the orange tent costumes. Make it a contest for company members, or solicit videos from local students.
If viewers who pop in to see The Nutcracker once a year find the choreography tired, imagine how the dancers feel. They have to plod through the same old stuff year after year, night after night, until they go numb.
Chie Kudo has danced the Sugarplum Fairy for six years and could probably dance it in her sleep. Sadly, she seemed to dance on auto-pilot Thursday.
Kudo partnered with Cory Stearns, a lean, smartly trained guest artist from American Ballet Theater, but there was not a spark of chemistry between them. Her forms and extensions were technically assured, but far too tame for the role which demands a more devilish personality. Stearns was visually thrilling with high jumps and solid landings, but Kudo never noticed him. Even after he rolled her downward in the dangerous fish dive, her head just inches from the floor, she popped up with the same robotic expression.
The grand pas de deux felt marked instead of magical, which hurt the production’s pacing. It was as if a sleepy cloud wafted through the theater. Even the orchestra seemed to fade and slow just a little. Blame it on dancing with a stranger, as the couple had two months to rehearse. Still, San Diego audiences deserve a more inspired experience.
The Nutcracker ballet is designed as a magical tour of foreign lands, and thankfully acrobatic dancers in the Russian section were electrifying; many are new to the company. The fascination was watching them transform from respectable parents in the party scene to flying comrades. Spanish chocolate dancers were also energized and squeezed extra snappy rhythms into the too brief dance. The Mirlitons offered impressive delicate forms, but their pale costumes with seaweed green trim need to go away like the tides.
Leila Mardoum led the ballerinas as the Dew Drop Fairy, delighting viewers with tight pique turns and fouettes, the windup move that has one leg whip the dancer around while balanced on her toe. Beaming with facial expression, she floated through a troupe of flowers on silent feet. She alternates the role with dancers Rebecca Correia and Ilana Jonas.
California Ballet’s The Nutcracker continues this weekend, Dec. 21 and 22, 2013, at the Civic Theatre, downtown. Guest artists include: Cory Stearns, Principal, ABT, and Sergey Kheylick. www.californiaballet.org. 858.560.6741.