George Balanchine’s "The Nutcracker"
George Balanchine's: "The Nutcracker" is an annual theatrical tradition that racks up great memories of holidays and togetherness, and it was great to see so many diverse families.
Even though Pennsylvania Ballet's production is the minted version by George Balanchine, it can, by now, start to look mummified. But this anniversary edition cracks through the preciousness via corps de ballet precision, interpretive skill in character dancing and orchestral thrust.
At the first weekend Sunday performance, the orchestra immediately knocked the dust off of the early scenes of old-world parlor holiday bacchanalia. Conductor Salvatore Scarpa kept to crisp tempos and orchestral projection to help some of Balanchine's creakier moments, and there was more kid business added to fill in the blanks for the kids in the audience.
Soon enough, former PB principal Alexander Iziliaev appears as Herr Drosselmeier with his magic tricks, flying cape and a nutcracker for Marie, which her devilish brother Fritz snatches from her and smashes.
Later, Marie has bad dreams of the rodent army and being rescued by the Nutcracker Prince. Drosselmeier repairs the toy and all these terrors are swept away and we are in the land of the sweets where all of the real dancing begins.
All of the character parts in Act I were sparkling, particularly Iziliaev, who is mysterious and inventive in every movement without going overboard. Also displaying strong character dancing (as he did in "Giselle") is Lorin Mathis as Dr. Stahlbaum.
Excellent pointe work variations came from Leah Hirsch and Phoebe Gavula as the Harlequin dolls. And Alex Peters was floating those razor-sharp jumps as the stoic soldier.
Then the PB corps de ballet Snowflakes, displaying diamond-hard suppleness and glittering esprit, especially when serenaded by the Philadelphia Boys Choir ensconced in the Academy balcony box.
In Act II, Amy Aldridge as Sugar Plum presides over those little angels who float us to the Land of the Sweets, where Balanchine recreates those dance ornaments with lineage that go back to the Russian Imperial Ballet.
The Spanish 'Chocolates' dance led by Edward Barnes and Elizabeth Mateer, giving it tarantella fire. Evelyn Kocak's 'Coffee' harem dance solo kept the temperature just below smolder. Peters was back for a quick 'Tea' with those lateral splits and Amir Yogev easily nailing those hoop jumps in 'Candy Canes.'
The Marzipan Shepherdesses were just hypnotic in Balanchine's counter-line configurations, the quintet led by a dazzling Laura Bowman. Then the corps women were back for a near-flawless flowers dance in Balanchine's geometric patterns, led by Gabriella Yudenich as Dewdrop. She was spellbinding in the adagio pointe work, with thrilling fouettes and soaring jetes.
Then Aldridge came back for the demanding central pas de deux opposite Jermel Johnson as her Cavalier. Johnson has been improving his classical partnering and this is the real test. Outside of short arabesque variation and moments of tight balance, this pair had electric chemistry. Aldridge's carriage and pirouette runs possess fine technical clarity and Johnson's muscled grand pirouettes and huge aerial battements are stellar.
Kudos also go to the younger dancers, starting with Mary Lee Deedens as Marie, lovely, unfussy acting and polished demi-pointe work. Christian Lavallie is lithe and swashbuckly as the Nutcracker prince.
Also returning is Juan Rafael Costellanos as badboy Fritz, getting his holiday fun by gleefully causing trouble. He is only to be outdone by the Ponchinellas and heavenly junior ballerinas.
George Balanchine’s "The Nutcracker" runs through Dec. 30 at the Academy of Music, 240 South Broad Street in Philadelphia. For info or tickets, call 215-893-1999 or visit www.paballet.org