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The Nutcracker

Canadian Ballet Theatre

Winter Garden Theatre

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In Toronto on Saturday

In answer to the question of why another Nutcracker review, the answer is Svetlana Lunkina. At just 26, the prima ballerina with Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet is one of the most lauded dancers in the world, and one of three guest artists imported by Canadian Ballet Theatre to star in its version of the holiday classic. Lunkina performed the Princess, partnered by fellow Bolshoi principal dancer, Ruslan Skvortsov as her Prince. Veronica Part, a former soloist with St. Petersburg's Kirov Ballet, now a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, was the lead role in both the Snowflake Dance and Waltz of the Flowers.

First, a word about Canadian Ballet Theatre. The Toronto-based company was founded in 2001 by Nadia Veselova-Tencer and Solomon Tencer, the couple who produces the glittering annual ballet gala, Stars of the 21st Century. CBT's mandate is to keep alive the traditions of classical ballet as studied by Veselova-Tencer at the famed Vaganova Choreographic Institute, the school of the Kirov Ballet.

The company's The Nutcracker is Veselova-Tencer's staging of Lev Ivanov's original Kirov version, which premiered to Tchaikovsky's beloved score at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre in 1892 -- albeit, modified to fit her limited resources. The company is made up of graduates and students from Veselova-Tencer's Academy of Ballet and Jazz, along with dance émigrés from the old Soviet bloc countries. The fact that CBT can mount a creditable production is a testament to her training.

As for Lunkina, she has a perfect ballet body -- the slender, curved, long legs; the beautiful elongated arms, and a petite torso. Gamin-like, she was as light-as-a-feather ethereal in the dream pas de deux in the Land of Snow, creating a lyrical flow of her impeccable limb placement and adage point shoe balances. No wonder she was the youngest Giselle in Bolshoi history at just 18. In the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux, Lunkina showed off her brilliant footwork and immaculate turns, still managing to defy gravity.

Skvortsov is handsome and princely, and despite one badly miscued waist lift which we will attribute to limited rehearsal time, a good partner. As in all Russian imperial style ballet, most of the time the man has little to do but be a porter and a bearer, and Skvortsov pulled off some heart-stopping partnering, including raising all of Lunkina over his head in a one-armed hoist. When his chance came to show his technical mettle in the Sugar Plum variations, he displayed a gorgeous "ballon," or lightness, and an ability to make difficult spins and turns look easy.

Part is a dancer of substance and power, with a strong, compact body and commanding stage presence, in fact, the mirror opposite of Lunkina. Part ripped through her two dances with a lightness in jumps and a speed in turns that defied her dominant physicality, and is definitely someone to watch because she rivets the eye.

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As for the CBT dancers, they showed off a better than average Snowflake corps de ballet of 16, while the ensembles involving the children, such as the party scene and mice war, were decently executed. The soloists were quite impressive. Järvi Raudsepp (Doll), Sarah Clark and Vadim Dulepa (Spanish Dance), Ursula Szkolak (Arabian Dance) and Nadia Maiolina and Kyrylo Ivanshchenko (Russian Dance) distinguished themselves in a professional manner. Clark is Veselova-Tencer's star graduate and her potential is enormous, both as a strong technician and interpreter. The younger dancers were charming, particularly Ksenia Merkoukhina as young Clara, and Eugene Dokoukine as her Nutcracker Doll.

The sets and costumes are extremely old-fashioned and garish, the latter awash in glittered chiffon, but that aside, the production is a time warp of a version that goes back in a direct line 113 years, and presents an easily accessible Nutcracker performed in an honoured tradition. Given time and resources, CBT could become a force to be reckoned with on the Canadian dance scene.

Stars of the 21st Century Ballet Gala returns to Toronto on May 7.

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