Saturday, December 15, 2018

'The Nutcracker' thrives in Indianapolis Ballet production

The opening scene of Indianapolis Ballet's 12th annual "Nutcracker" production subtly reinforces a down-to-earth community feeling of a ballet whose fantasy and dream elements make it ideal for the season, and not just for its Christmas-season setting.

Clara looks on as the Nutcracker directs soldier platoon's attack on mice.
We see at first the gradual gathering of guests outside the upper-middle-class Stahlbaum home, site of the family's Christmas Eve party.  We can admire the naturalness of the casual, friendly interaction of adults and children before much dancing of any kind has taken place. Tchaikovsky's music has already exerted its charm, of course, starting with the perky overture. Everything that we see and hear is inviting and rests on common ground — a generous invitation to the wonders that follow.

It is to the credit of James Leitner's direction that the company conveys such a sociable atmosphere, and when the action moves inside and Drosselmeyer's godfather magic starts taking over, the transition toward fantasy seems entirely natural. As little as a narrative thread has to do with "The Nutcracker," what there is of it was firmly delineated on the show's opening night at the Murat Theatre, Old National Centre.

The pivotal center of the action depends a lot on how Drosselmeyer is played. A balletically centered interpretation is essential, but so too is dramatic insight. Paul Vitali, the company's artistic director, offered both. The magical powers Drosselmeyer commands are carefully husbanded in this production. The suggestion that he may have some connection to dark arts is effectively muted.

We see mainly an eccentric, avuncular Drosselmeyer in close but mysterious connection to the festivities. He moves with ease among the host family and their friends. That he also represents a world apart allows him to plausibly usher the dreaming Clara into the Land of Sweets, where her delight can fuse with ours after the trauma of her broken, then mended, nutcracker gift. Vitali's broad gestures and swooping elegance expressed both his affection for making a Christmas party extra special and his readiness to trail mystery in his wake. Clara, as danced by Josephine Kirk, perfectly represented the vehicle for his generosity and capacity to evoke wonder. That carried right through the finale, where Clara's central position sums up the tribute that the panoply of character dancers offers to childhood dreams.

Staging of ensemble numbers was astute at several points, starting with the battle of mice and toy

Snow King and Queen:Christopher Lingner and Yoshiko Kamikusa
soldiers. Thorough costuming and disguises didn't mask the fitness of Greg Goessner and Leonard Perez for their leadership roles as, respectively, the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. In a much different ensemble victory, the crossings and branched movements of the Snowflakes in the scene that ends the first act created splendid patterns in white that mimicked the geometry of real-world snowflakes, and complemented the stunning precision and dash of Christopher Lingner as Snow King and Yoshiko Kamikusa as Snow Queen.

The ballet's other notable duo — the Cavalier and the Sugar Plum Fairy — bookend Act 2's character dances and were capably presented Friday by Riley Horton and Kristin Toner. The stately onset of the Pas de Deux yielded to the panache of the variations, including the Sugar Plum Fairy's ethereal, celesta-accompanied magnetism.

The idiomatic choreography and costuming for the character dances worked hand-in-glove. The athleticism required for the Russian Trepak got single-dancer focus in Khris Santos' performance, set against an ensemble of young women whose dancing both complemented and contrasted with the soloist's. The Lingner-Kamikusa duo richly deserve singling out for their mastery of Arabian Coffee: The sinuous precision of her dancing,  meshed with lifts and catches that were so smooth and fluid they seemed to suspend gravity, made for a memorable showcase. Chinese Tea, as danced by the evocatively costumed Abigail Bixler and Greg Goessner, caught the spirit of the music without settling for the "yellowface" stereotyping that has recently come under fire in other productions.

Management of the accumulating second-act forces in the finale could hardly have been more uplifting and exciting. Something more captivating than a choreographed curtain call was achieved by the staging, and with the orchestra continuing its colorful account of Tchaikovsky's score under Vince Lee's baton, the full splendor of "The Nutcracker" was brought home. And after all the sugary visions,"home" is the underlying theme of the story and this production's realization of it.

[Photos by Moonbug Photography]

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