Dec 17, 2015

Cracking Open

Heather Ogden in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zinger
There's always something special about seeing The Nutcracker every December. The story of two children who, joined by stable boy Peter, enter a magical Christmas land, is a perennial favorite, and a compulsory part of many ballet companies' holiday programming. The work, first premiered in 1892, features a libretto adapted from German author E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" and the National Ballet of Canada's annual production, which features dancing bears, skittering chefs, and a sword-wielding King (of rodents, that is) —  is a feast for the eyes and ears. James Kudelka, choreographer and librettist, has created a visual feast that captures the glittering beauty of a snowy Christmas but still retains all the warmth and merriment of the season, with the perfect mix of grand and intimate movements reflecting Tchaikovsky's famous score.

This year marks its 20th anniversary, and opening night, the company featured its first Peter, Rex Harrington, along with his partner, Bob Hope, as Cannon Dolls (various "dolls" through the years have included Toronto Mayor John Tory, author Margaret Atwood, skater Kurt Browning, and astronaut Chris Hadfield). The show, which is an opulent riff on Russian design motifs (it even features a giant, decorated egg from which the Sugar Plum Fairy emerges), is a clever blend of old and new, European and North American, art and entertainment, and it's these integrations that make it so successful. You know you're seeing something artful and beautiful (Santo Loquasto's set and costume designs are truly stunning), but at the same time, you can't help but smile, even chuckle, at the panoply of delights being presented, whether it's the dancing horse, skating bears (my personal favorite) or the giant Christmas tree, with its gracefully waving branches and bobbing baubles.

Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.
It's equally heartening to see students of all ages from the National Ballet School onstage, proudly strutting their stuff; such a buoyant presence gives one hope for not only the future of the art form, but for cultural presentation and passion. Ninety-eight students in total are featured in the production; they're from the Ballet School as well as local Toronto schools. That's an incredible achievement in and of itself —I imagine the backstage area of the Four Seasons Centre this time of year to be something akin to organized chaos— so full kudos are in order to National Ballet School Rehearsal Director Laural Toto and assistant Patrick Kastoff, as well as Stage Managers Jeff Morris and Lillane Stillwell, and Assistant Stage Manager Michael Lewandowski. Thumbs way up.

As with any proper professional production, none of the backstage chaos is, ever sensed onstage. The audience is left to wonder over the myriad of riches being presented, and, because of this richness, there's always something new for us to consider and marvel over. This year I felt drawn to the team of young male dancers who have an especially impressive ensemble number near the beginning of the show. From my own vantage point, 2015 has been a year littered with numerous (and frequently painful) examples of machismo gone awry, so watching this year's presentation of The Nutcracker, it was deeply refreshing to note the young male dancers and their smiles, their light-footedness, their utter lack of self-consciousness. This isn't to say ballet can't be macho — ballet history is littered with many dancers, male and female in fact, who have channelled a particular brand of raw power that has thrilled audiences over the decades — but there was something, for me, awfully touching about seeing young boys onstage, engaging in an art form frequently thought of as "girlie," from of a purely joyous, non-gendered place. "I love doing this!" their bodies seemed to hum, "I love it!"

McGee Maddox with Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.
Greatly complementing this pure instinct on opening night was dancer McGee Maddox, who, as Peter, radiated a cuddly, floppy-haired boyishness in his impressive turns, pas-de-deux routines, and great leaps of James Kudelka's choreography. Less swagger and more sweetness, Maddox is a lovely, deeply likable stage presence, the perfect fit for a production that is candy-apple sweet and spicy-cider cozy. Joining him was Heather Ogden's Sugar Plum Fairy (a gorgeously warm performance) and Robert Stephen's Uncle Nikolai, whose great leaps and dizzying turns nicely integrated both commanding authority and playful whimsy. There's something so special about walking out of a production feeling plain old good, and in this, the National Ballet's production of The Nutcracker absolutely excels. Smiles are in short supply these days, on both epic and intimate levels; it's nice to have a work that channels pure joy, unapologetically. We need it.

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