The Nutcracker is a longstanding holiday tradition for many, but as far as tradition goes, the National Ballet of Canada’s staging has a unique twist. Choreographed by James Kudelka in 1995, this version is set in 19th-century Russia, perhaps inspired by Tchaikovsky, whose luxuriant score underpins Nutcrackers the world over. It’s lush and dancey, slightly overstuffed and delivers the right amount of seasonal magic in a neat two-act ballet.
This Nutcracker makes an egalitarian casting choice, with the protagonist role shared by one girl and one boy, siblings Marie and Misha, replacing the traditional little girl, Clara. There is a generous amount of hair-pulling and scrapping between the brother and sister, a far cry from the typically prim appearance of children in the ballet. While this earthy portrayal can be a bit enervating, the point is this: The children must learn to share and co-operate as they defend their friend the Nutcracker from the Mouse Tsar. On opening night, we saw Matthew Skradski as Misha and Cadence Downs as Marie, both talented and lovely in their roles.
Act I is “the more the merrier” with no less than a dancing horse, two dancing bears and the frenzied battle of marauding mice. The Cannon Dolls, a celebrity turn, fire a confetti cannon into the audience to signal the start of the battle scene; on opening night wheelchair tennis athletes Gillian Cruz and Anne-Marie Dolinar did the honours. The dazzling entrance of the Snow Queen (Hannah Fischer) and her Icicles (Ben Rudisin and Christopher Gerty) provide a welcome change of pace, with Snow Maidens who bourreé through the snowdrift, and a handful of prancing unicorns thrown in for good measure.
In the second act, the Bee is a novel addition to the Waltz of the Flowers (heralding spring), danced excellently by Tina Pereira. The Arabian Coffee quartet never fails to please with their silky extensions and exotic poses. Harrison James gets MVP for his energetic performance, dancing much of the two hours, first as Peter the stable boy and then as the Nutcracker. I also liked Donald Thom as Uncle Nikolai – more magician than eccentric, dancing with verve and sharp turns even in his decadent cloak. The energy of the entire cast gives The Nutcracker its appeal, and on its first night, it had more pop than a Christmas cracker.
Greta Hodgkinson, who retires this year after a three-decade career with the National Ballet, danced her penultimate Sugar Plum Fairy on opening night. The Sugar Plum Fairy gets an especially radiant entrance in this Nutcracker, emerging resplendent in glittering tutu from Santo Loquasto’s fabulous gilt Fabergé egg. She commences to charm the court with a sweet and delicate solo. Meanwhile, the Nutcracker has fallen deeply in love with her. Hodgkinson and James’s final pas de deux was danced with beautiful musicality and effervescence, a fairy-tale ending if ever there was one.
The Nutcracker runs until Jan. 4 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
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