Skip to main content

Jillian Vanstone and Skylar Campbell are well matched in this year’s production of the National Ballet’s The Nutcracker.Aleksandar Antonijevic

The National Ballet of Canada premiered James Kudelka's The Nutcracker in 1995, which makes it just two years shy of 20 years old. How does this production manage to stay so watchable?

Well, for starters, it is action-packed. There is always something going on in terms of choreography. No one packs in movement to each bar of music like Kudelka. Second, there are the sumptuous sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto that anchor the ballet in the Russia of composer Tchaikovsky. One never gets tired of the gorgeous look of the piece.

Kudelka designed his Nutcracker to have a moral, so he just doesn't have a young girl go on a magic journey with her Nutcracker doll. Rather, it is battling siblings, Marie (Olivia McAlpine) and her brother Misha (Eamon Stocks) who travel with the Nutcracker. The two learn to get along during their adventures.

Over the years, it has become obvious that having a young boy as one of the leads is a great draw to young boys in terms of audience. Kudelka's version has punch far beyond the attraction the usual Nutcrackers have for little wannabe ballerinas.

There is also humour, and lots of it. The first time the motorized rat races across the stage still gives the audience a thrill, including this writer. And then there are the dancing bears, a performing horse, and chubby little chefs chasing runaway chickens.

For someone like myself who has seen the ballet countless times, the trick is to find a performance with people I haven't seen before. Sunday afternoon featured Skylar Campbell making his debut at Peter the stable boy (who becomes the Nutcracker doll), and Jillian Vanstone (Sugar Plum Fairy), the most underrated and underused principal dancer at the National.

Traditionally, The Nutcracker has been used as a showcase for emerging artists. A good performance in this ballet can really help propel a dancer to the next level. Campbell's rise in the company has been a quick one.

The California-born dancer joined the National as an apprentice in 2009, became a corps member in 2011 and was promoted to second soloist in 2013. It has been clear from the roles he's been given that artistic director Karen Kain is very interested in him.

Campbell is slender and elegant, with an ease of delivery. Everything about his dancing is fluid and effortless. There is nothing of a Flash Harry in him. He doesn't produce thrills like some of his go-for-the-jugular colleagues. Rather, his movement is clean and precise, which makes for a very satisfying performance (although he did over-rotate a couple of times, probably due to nerves).

Usually, the princes in the making are broken in by seasoned ballerinas. Born in Nanaimo, B.C., Vanstone joined the company in 1999, and finally made it to principal dancer in 2011. She and Campbell are a good match because they have a similar look.

Vanstone is a great classicist who makes tricky footwork look like child's play.

Her presence on stage is one of lyrical grace. Like Campbell, she is not showy. Both hide their formidable technique within the performance. Character comes first, not tricks.

Another new person for me is China-born Rui Huang, who joined the company in 2011. She performed the Bee in Nutcracker. The role is a Kudelka invention which he threw into the famous Waltz of the Flowers to complicate an already complex ensemble piece. Huang buzzed around, mostly in the air, with lovely, high jumps. She's another to watch.