Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
In Edmonton on Friday
At $1.5-million, the new The Nutcracker is one of the most expensive productions in Alberta Ballet's history. The company has been touring this version since Dec. 3, but only now, that it has reached the larger stages of its home cities of Edmonton and Calgary, can the ballet's full scenic array be mounted.
The choreographer is AB's English-born ballet master Edmund Stripe who cut his dancemaker skills with West Australian Ballet. His collaborator is veteran American designer Zack Brown who has three other Nutcrackers under his belt. Together the two have come up with a what's-not-to-like production that should earn buckets of money. It also helps that 48 children culled from local ballet schools in each tour city swell the company ranks which translates into bums in seats in terms of family and friends.
Stripe has gone back to the E.T.A. Hoffmann story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King for his inspiration. It is not, however, a plot that is easily followed on stage. That being said, his storyline is integrated into the Tchaikovsky/Petipa scenario, so the best bits from the original 1892 ballet are still there, although Stripe has moved the location from Germany to Russia late in the 19th century. He has also changed the story in parts, adding needless complication.
Stripe is an able choreographer. While not an innovator, his traditional approach to ballet vocabulary is attractive and familiar. As ballet master, he knows the strengths of the dancers well, and has created choreography that makes them look good. In fact, the company appears polished throughout.
Unfortunately, Stripe has let some dramatic music escape. For example, Tchaikovsky's soaring score to describe the magic of the Nutcracker coming alive is blunted because the set changes that show the drawing room's transformation occur well after this section of music begins. Similarly, the beautiful arching theme of the Land of Snow which should be at the heart of the Snow Queen's pas de deux, is wasted, set against mime depicting Karl's injuries at the hand of the Rat Tsar.
In fact, there is no Snow Queen pas de deux. Karl and Klara get to dance together but the Snow Tsarina merely bourrées, or glides across the stage executing tiny steps on point. The advantage, however, of having adult dancers perform Karl and Klara means that Stripe can give them lyrical pas de deux in both the Snow and Sugar Plum scenes.
Stripe's Snowflakes and Flower ensembles include pretty patterning for the corps de ballet, and the Sugar Plum pas de deux is suitably showy. His Christmas Eve dances are elegant for the adults, and exuberant for the children. The scrambling little mice are downright cute. Stripe has also included a charming piece for the Sugar Plum's adolescent girl and boy pages.
Brown has captured the gilded age of the Belle Époque in his beautiful period clothes for the Christmas Eve party. Not one costume for either child or adult is alike. What is disappointing is the dull drawing room he has put them in. There is no sense of lavish surroundings, just uninspired dark walls. The magic is not terribly exciting either. Instead of the Christmas tree growing to huge proportions, a large pine bough and over-sized gift boxes appear.
The Snow and Sugar Plum scenes, however, are visual treats. Brown has designed a silvery winter wonderland for the former, and a delectable pastel confection for the latter. Particularly charming are the whimsical flowers and vines that rise up as Waltz of the Flowers begins.
Stripe's plot is unnecessarily complex, but the appealing dancing and costumes make up for any shortfall. Gilding the lily is conductor Peter Dala leading the Edmonton Symphony and the Calgary Philharmonic.
Tchaikovsky's beloved score performed live makes the The Nutcracker experience that much richer.
Alberta Ballet's The Nutcracker continues at Calgary's Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
Dec. 17 to 22.