A Tough Nut to Crack

The Nutcracker, presented by State Street Ballet. At the Lobero Theatre, Sunday, December 17.

Reviewed by Molly Freedenberg

Nut-8.jpgFor dance lovers, The Nutcracker is as central to the Christmas tradition as Miracle on 34th Street or Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” In fact, it was seeing my hometown Nutcracker as a kid that inspired me to become a dancer. The story was mesmerizing, the costumes beautiful, the music captivating, and the dancing exquisite — so seemingly effortless, so breathtaking.

Of course, I also saw it every year for nearly two decades, so it became quite boring. I can understand Rodney Gustafson’s desire to give a new spin to this age-old — and, for many dancers, tiresome — classic. Unfortunately, State Street Ballet’s “1930s Hollywood” version of The Nutcracker didn’t quite work.

The pastel-colored, ’30s-inspired sets were creative but lacked the majesty and richness of traditional sets. The juxtaposition of jazzy movements alongside classical ballet felt more contrived than inspired. And few of the ’30s-styled costumes flattered the dancers or their movements.

The biggest problem, though, was the use of the music. Tchaikovsky’s score gives very definite cues: in the “Dance of the Dolls,” percussion indicates the dolls are being wound up, for example, while the crescendo in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” indicates an escalation in the dancing. Gustafson’s choreography mostly ignored these cues, missing opportunities for emotional and visual impact. But some moments were inspired. The Arabian dance was sensual and gorgeous. The maid and butler (dancing to the traditional Russian song) were fantastically funny. And Gustafson’s take on the dance of the children (replacing the giant-skirted woman with a man dressed as Mae West) was downright hilarious. It was also an interesting twist to see a woman cast as the Rat King, though the choreography didn’t make full use of her talent. Terez Dean was a sweet, graceful Clara, maintaining a sense of innocence and romance in her well-matched duets with the Nutcracker Prince (Raydel Caceres). Leila Drake nearly stole every scene she was in. And the men were especially amazing, particularly Ryan Camou (the charismatic uncle) with his turns, leaps, and scissor kicks, and Ming Chang, who seemed to float rather than dance.

The production was interesting and beautiful, but it lacked magic. Still, the dancers clearly have remarkable talent, and the children around me seemed to be delighted. I only hope someday their parents take them to a traditional version, too.

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