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What’s in the box? Northeast Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Altered Ceremony
By Mae G. Banner

Northeast Ballet’s The Nutcracker

Proctor’s Theatre, Dec. 4

The annual observance of The Nutcracker is a family and community rite. People who go to Mass only at Christmas or to temple only for Yom Kippur do not fail to join the audience for this secular winter event. Love of the arts takes second place to participation in the ceremony.

So, we gathered together at Proctor’s once more (the 18th time, actually) to see the Northeast Ballet Company re-enact the ritual passages of the story of Clara and her Nutcracker, their heroic defeat of the Rat King and his army of mice, their subsequent travels through the Land of Snow and arrival at the Kingdom of Sweets where diverting dances are performed for them.

Like Greeks watching a play at Epidaurus, we know the story well. We want to see how well the dancers perform it and we want to be sure they don’t leave out the essential parts.

In Northeast’s Nutcracker, artistic director-choreographer Darlene Myers made most of the essentials happen. The mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer (Brian Bayly) gestured to make time stop. The Christmas tree grew, stretching toward the ceiling. The snow fell like diamonds over the hushed woods. Mother Ginger (Jeff Wilkin in a hoop skirt as big as a circus tent) pulled the cord and out came a slew of tiny red-cheeked dancers who hopped about as the full house clapped in rhythm. Alexis Blair and Marcus Rogers were snaky and acrobatic in the exotic Arabian dance. Long-legged Alexis Pangborn was poised and grave as Dewdrop, who led the Waltz of the Flowers.

And, of course, the ultimate duet of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier (New York City Ballet’s Jenifer Ringer and Philip Neal) made us swoon, Neal for his gallantry as a partner and for his smooth and dynamic solo variations, Ringer for the crystalline beauty of her dancing. Remember, this duet is Balanchine’s choreography. Nobody messes with it because it is perfect.

But, Myers, probably a bit bored with doing exactly the same thing every year, has allowed herself to abandon a key part of the narrative. While her Nutcracker generally followed its pre-ordained path, she muddied the tussle between Clara and her brother Fritz over the toy Nutcracker. I didn’t see the Nutcracker fall and break, nor did I see Drosselmeyer comfort Clara by bandaging the toy with his handkerchief.

Clara creeps downstairs after midnight to check on her beloved Nutcracker and is surrounded by an army of mice led by the tall and scary Rat King (Jordan Haskins). The Nutcracker (Rogers) and his battalion of Toy Soldiers defeat the mice, but this should happen only with the help of Clara, who is supposed to throw her slipper at the Rat King’s head at a crucial moment. Without this brave deed—omitted in this production—the point of the journey is lost.

So, we saw some beautiful and imaginatively choreographed dancing, but pulled out of context. Praises to former NYCB dancers Deborah Wingert and James Fayette, who choreographed their duet as the Snow Queen and Prince. Fayette, six months after his retirement, still has classic line and presence. He was a strong partner to Wingert, in a glittery midnight-blue dress, lifting her to breathtaking heights.

Myers’ choreography for the Snowflakes and the Flowers was shapely and satisfying, making full use of the expanded Proctor’s stage. These young dancers get better every year.

The first-act party scene, peopled by non-balletic adult couples dressed in jewel colors of velvet and taffeta, looked like a ball from an Edith Wharton novel. The posh swags and bows of the women’s gowns were reflected in the satin and velvet finery of many young girls in the audience, which brings us back to the communal nature of the Nutcracker rite. It’s a bit of winter fun that we take very seriously.

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