Felix/Martha goes a-nutcrackin’

The Snowflakes in the grand finale to Act One of Oregon Ballet Theatre's production of George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker." Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.

As regular readers may recall, the Small Large Smelly Boy (a.k.a. Felix/Martha) is a lover of the ballet. Not so much contemporary dance — at 13, he’s a classicist at heart — but definitely the ballet. That made a trip to this year’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at Oregon Ballet Theatre a command performance, so off we went on Wednesday night. Mr. Scatter had asked Felix/Martha if he’d like to blog about the experience, and he declined. But in the car on the way downtown, Mr. Scatter struck a deal: Write five sentences about the show after you’ve seen it, and I’ll write the post. Done, with a bonus Sentence No. 6. To maintain the verity of balance, Mr. Scatter decided to confine himself to an equal number of segments. Felix/Martha’s sentences are in bold, Mr. Scatter’s in more quotidian light face. Final performances are Thursday night and Friday noon.

By Felix/Martha and Bob Hicks

1. The music is brilliant, better even than the dancing. The story is compelling, and the mixture of it all — plot, dance and music — forms an arguable masterpiece.

1. Brilliant, indeed. Tchaikovsky’s score for The Nutcracker isn’t just one of the best ballet scores, it’s one of our finest classical compositions, period, rewarding multiple listenings: I happily spin it even in April or July. That’s one reason we made sure to attend a performance when the OBT Orchestra was performing live. Under Niel DePonte‘s baton (he’s been conducting this music in Portland for 25 years) the orchestra conveyed a heady calm that set the tone for the lightly dreamlike quality of the dancing.

2. Herr Drosselmeier is meant to be a spooky and somewhat menacing character, so what’s he doing draped in maroon garments? Alter the color of his garb to a frightening black and you have a definite daunting appearance: He would sport the look of a swooping bat.

2. Over the years I’ve come to better terms with the set and costume designs of Peter Farmer, who designed this production originally for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (OBT later bought the production) and had the misfortune to replace Campbell Baird’s ravishing Faberge-inspired designs. Baird’s design was conceptually and visually brilliant; Farmer’s is competent in a quieter way, echoing design tropes that were once ubiquitous on ballet and opera stages: As Balanchine’s choreography is an exercise in historical nostalgia, so is Farmer’s backward-looking design. (It’s a tradition that Gilbert & Sullivan were already lightly spoofing in the likes of The Pirates of Penzance, which The Nutcracker lightly suggests when the kids come floating onto the scene in their miniature sailing ship.) One thing Farmer’s designs accomplish is to set this Nutcracker firmly in the Victorian/Edwardian tradition of childlike fantasy: Even the color schemes, which somehow manage to be both pastel and garish, bespeak an antique freshness. That said, Drosselmeier does seem to be the quintessential man in black, doesn’t he?

3. The order of events was slightly askew. The world becomes smaller (or larger, if you prefer) before the grand heightening of the ornate flashing tree, which is the official point of the shrinking kerfuffle (or growing kerfuffle, if you prefer) if you ask me. Rats scurry across the stage at a time before the world shrinks (or grows, if you prefer).

3. Sometimes magic seems syncopated. Is this a dream, or is it “really” happening? Are those early-scurrying rodents foreshadowing the action, or are they just out of synch? For me, the show’s biggest feat of magic is this: In an audience of about 2,000 people, roughly a zillion of them appeared to be little ¬†girls wearing tiaras.

4. The Candy Cane and Dewdrop both performed some sort of feat unachievable without nearly infinite practice, and delighted the audience into applause with impossible grace.

4. Candy Cane is one of ballet’s terrific character-dancer roles, and on Wednesday night Javier Ubell did, indeed, do it full justice. Dewdrop was the imperial Alison Roper, queen of every domain she surveys. Props also to the fleeter-than-a-speeding-bullet Yuka Iino as the Sugarplum Fairy and Chauncey Parsons as her Cavalier, plus, in the first act, Steven Houser as the rat-a-tat Toy Soldier and Olga Krochik and Leta Biasucci as Harlequin and Columbine. And let’s not forget the kids: Alyssa Schroeder as Marie, Wyatt McConville-McCoy as the Nutcracker/Little Prince, and Ethan Myers as Marie’s brother Fritz (who, after maliciously breaking her doll’s arm in the first act, doesn’t return for Act Two: Let that be a lesson for annoying little brothers everywhere).

5. I would have enjoyed more dancing in the first act, but what does it matter as long as the music plays in the background?

5. For a great story ballet (and The Nutcracker is definitely that) this dance does have an odd structure, with all the story stuffed in the first act and much of the showy stuff in the second. Felix/Martha is right, even though Balanchine’s Nutcracker actually is a lot more dancerly in the first act than a lot of other versions. The way I finally came to terms with the ballet’s structure is this: I think of Act I as all the nervous excitement of the day before Christmas, when disaster might strike at any moment and anything at all seems possible. I think of Act II as the calm of Christmas morning and the pleasure, in the divertissements, of unwrapping the gifts. The feats of individual dancing prowess also hark back to a much older and showier style of ballet as a sport of oneupsmanship, something I realized a number of years ago when I saw the swaggering Le Corsaire at the Maryiinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, Balanchine’s original stomping ground.

6. And finally: Other than that, how did you like the ballet, Mr. Rat King?

6. Can’t top that. But the niceties of balance dictate that I say something, so I’ll just add this: Felix/Martha and Mr. Scatter are aware that the Nutcracker rodents are technically mice, but they seem decidedly ratty to us.

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ILLUSTRATION: The Snowflakes in the grand finale to Act One of Oregon Ballet Theatre’s production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert.