Saturday, December 17, 2016

With ISO in the pit, 'The Nutcracker' gets full-scale treatment as drama and dance in Indianapolis School of Ballet production

Balletomanes and newcomers alike throng to "The Nutcracker" this time of year all around the country. But it's a safe bet that, unlike most ballets, some of the music is already familiar even to first-timers. 

So it's more than academic that for its 10th-anniversary presentation of the work, the Indianapolis School of Ballet dancers are being accompanied by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of associate conductor Vince Lee, to give Tchaikovsky's score a freshness that the most accomplished recorded version can't match.

Victoria Lyras, ISB founder and director, directs the production, which includes George Balanchine choreography for the grand pas de deux in the second act. Her vision of the show is large-hearted —generous with dramatic gesture as well as balletic finesse and detail.

This is the type of nutcracker, traditional in Germany, that figures in the ballet.
The first of three performances Friday night at Old National Centre quickly brought the audience into the cheery holiday atmosphere of an upper-class 19th-century German home, after the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. It's an inviting first-act scenario that this production presents: The Christmas Eve party at the Stahlbaums derives its setting from the Morris-Butler House a few blocks from the site of the show.

Evidently amplified in a fortunately natural-sounding way, the orchestra played the overture as the guests gathered, first seen outside the home, then in the lofty living room as servants finish bustling about and start gathering coats as the adults and children assemble for fun. ISB resourcefully uses a large number of adults and children to suggest an effervescent social occasion while lending it enough formality to make extensive dance use of such beloved music as the March, with the girls doing a ring-dance.

Herr Drosselmeyer's mysterious command over the real-world and dream-world events of "The Nutcracker" is acutely represented in the performance of Paul Vitali. He displayed both charisma and, in working to revive the damaged Nutcracker doll, a gift for comedy. This was a distinguished, elegant portrayal of the venerated friend of the family (originally the children's godfather) who introduces life-size gifts that emerge from decorated boxes: The dances of the Columbine and Harlequin dolls, and especially Cory Lingner's snappy Soldier Doll, raise the party's excitement level.

The Nutcracker (Noah Trulock) engages the Mouse Queen in a sword fight as other mice look on.
Before the most dramatic feature of the ballet occurs, Friday's performance moved with an enchanting sweep and a coordination that always engaged the attention. That dramatic feature is, of course, the battle scene between the toy soldiers and the mice, with the forces led by the Mouse Queen (Patricia Johnstone) and the Nutcracker (Noah Trulock, dashing but somewhat hampered by a large costume head that affected the end of his solo turn). Such surreal moments were managed as conscientiously as the flow of the party scene had been earlier.

The Snow Scene, which provides a magical transition before the Land of the Sweets takes over the second act, was attractively staged, overcoming the inevitable letdown in the accompaniment, where the women's voices were synthesized. The scene focused on Hannah Schenk's Snow Queen and Jacob Taylor's Snow King, with her dancing seeming lighter and less earth-bound than his. As an ensemble, the Snowflakes helped prepare us for the show's movement into a world far beyond the Stahlbaum living room and deep into Clara's dream.

The balletic high point of the second act was the precision and flair of Olivia Hartzell's Sugar Plum Fairy, from the character's famous dance featuring the bell-like celesta right through the climactic Grand Pas De Deux, in which she was exquisitely partnered by Dustin Layton as the Cavalier. The Waltz of the Flowers lay at the ensemble pinnacle of what this production has to offer. Movement of the Flowers was so well-regulated from front to back and side to side, but in a way that flowed and never seemed mechanical. The passing into and out of prominence of Hannah Schenk as the Dew Drop Fairy could not have been a better illustration of how to set an expert soloist against a well-prepared ensemble.

As for the character dances that Clara, winningly danced by Josephine Kirk throughout, watches from a place of honor: Trulock (on loan from Dance Kaleidoscope) formed a nimble partnership with Abigail Bixler in "Chinese Tea."  Alexandra Jones, in one of the double-cast roles, made the most of every moment in the languid "Arabian Coffee." Lingner, so effective as the Soldier Doll in the first act, returned to be dazzling in the Russian Trepak. Four aptly costumed young women put across "Spanish Chocolate" fetchingly, and, in the performance I saw, Sydney Williams charmingly led a trio in the sprightly "German Marzipan."

Costuming, lighting and sets unfailingly served the dancing that everyone came to Old National Centre for — even if it's true that Tchaikovsky's music will always remain a huge part of the attraction whenever "The Nutcracker" is performed. For that reason, the Indianapolis School of Ballet and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra have forged a partnership well worth experiencing this weekend.