As she does every December, California Ballet’s Maxine Mahon walks in front of snowflake projections and greets a wiggly audience.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls…”she says with the same inflection, and she hasn’t changed The Nutcracker choreography for decades.
Repetition is what makes the holiday ritual popular, and this vintage production entices your children’s children.
People of all ages pose for photos in the lobby with dancers dressed as candies and cookies.
They buy nutcracker toys and sugar plum fairy Christmas ornaments. Everyone dresses up as if they’re going to church.
Families and friends get back together once a year, especially if they have a child in the show. Former Cal Bal dancers repeat the steps in their seats at the Civic Theatre, and they bring their children along.
The Party Scene at the Stalbaum’s house is the same every year. Nurse Tilly plays games with rambunctious children who blow horns. A party guest tries to play flirty games with Nurse Tilly. Stooped-over grandpa dances a geezer dance. Teaser video here.
The San Diego Symphony plays through Dec. 20. While Tchaikovsky’s score grows ominous, magician/odd toy maker Drosselmeyer winds up two dancing dolls. He has a vampire-like vibe at times. Dance fans may think of the company’s adult Dracula program.
While giant dolls dressed as Raggedy Ann and Andy with yarn wigs preserve the antique setting, they come off a bit creepy. Millions of Americans have embraced Tchaikovsky’s music and dancing mushrooms in Disney’s Fantasia, but these are not pretty fungi or Victorian dolls.
Sets and costumes are hand-sewn and old-fashioned. Children and parents pantomime and bow a lot. Clara falls for Drosselmeyer’s nephew and imagines loving a prince instead of a nutcracker toy.
This staging moves the coming of age story along. Parents with preteens can talk about falling in love on the drive home.
Young Clara (danced in rotation by Julia Dawson, Sara Doron, Caitlyn Feddock) dances on half toe and leaps as the Christmas tree grows. A cardboard castle and wedge of cheese roll onto the stage to create a popup storybook.
The Nutcracker is a children’s show, but the original story by E.T. A. Hoffman was dark. French writer Alexandre Dumas made it less scary. When some Russians made it into a ballet, Marie became Klara. In Hoffman’s story Marie ditches her family and moves to another world. While Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz wants to go home, Marie wants to leave forever. Hoffman said he wanted his readers to find their inner child.
Today’s Nutcracker invites adults to let go and find that inner child. There are 1,000’s of productions in hundreds of cities, several running in San Diego this weekend.
The ballet has a warm family story in Act I but goes to a strange Snow Kingdom and Kingdom of the Sweets in Act II. That’s when the narrative ends and real dancing begins. The mouse and soldier battle scene is a crowd favorite, as is Mother Ginger releasing tiny Bonbons from her giant hoop skirt.
Principal dancers Ana Da Costa, Chie Kudo, Trystan Merrick, and Vitaliy Nechay, and guest artist Jared Nelson perform lovely ballet forms, such as fouettes, where one leg swings around as the dancer spins on the standing leg.
Kudo as the Sugar Plum Fairy is a highlight that sleepy children may miss because she doesn’t appear until the very end.
Merrick and Nelson alternate as the Cavalier and prove to be two of the best male dancers around. Nelson exudes the bravado of a Hollywood actor, throwing his hands back after nailing each fish dive, a high lift that has his Sugar Plum tumble downward into his arms just above the floor.
Nutcrackers vary and this one has a energized steely blue Dewdrop, danced by three women in rotation. On the night I was there Elizabeth Kenyon danced the role with a frozen expression that distracted from her admirable technique.
The Russian dancers are acrobatic and fearless. Sadly, Arabian Coffee and Chinese Tea dances haven’t changed since the Nixon era. “I Dream of Jeannie” garb, hideous black wigs, undulating, and uninspired toe hops haven’t evolved.
Did you know? When Balanchine staged The Nutcracker for CBS in 1958, the “coffee” dance had Arthur Mitchell smoking opium on a hookah, not the current belly dancer. And there was no pas de deux.
Aside from those stereotypes that scream for artistic reform, there’s something satisfying about repetition and a communal experience.
There’s much to love in Cal Bal’s production, even if your child is not dancing in it. Everyone has a favorite part.
A grandma announced that her granddaughter was a Bonbon. Rowdy boys and girls in my row cheered during the battle scene. Perhaps they’ll sign up for ballet classes if they can swing a sword, which is almost like a Jedi light saber.
California Ballet’s The Nutcracker continues through Dec. 20. Tickets.
More Professional Nutcrackers in San Diego:
City Ballet of San Diego with orchestra. Spreckels Theatre. Dec. 11-23 cityballet.org.
San Diego Ballet. Jacobs Music Center at Copley Symphony Hall. Dec. 26 & 27. http://sandiegoballetdancecompany.org
Culture Shock Nutcracker – A Holiday Hip Hop Dance Theatrical 2016. Spreckels. Jan. 1-3. http://cultureshockdance.org/nutcracker/