I've seen James Kudelka's The Nutcracker at least 25 times – that's counting once each year since the National Ballet premiered the work in 1995, plus years when I saw multiple performances to catch different casts.
Kudelka's lavish, state-of-the-art version was designed to compete with the big Broadway shows that were filling theatres at the time. The previous, traditional Celia Franca production, while charming and serviceable, looked anemic in comparison with Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera.
Hence the opulent Santo Loquasto sets and costumes that place the ballet in the Russia of Tchaikovsky's own time, including a golden Fabergé egg for the Sugar Plum Fairy's home.
Was the $2.7-million price tag worth it? You bet it was. In terms of theatrical values, this production can give any big Broadway musical a run for its money.
Kudelka added another layer to enrich the original story line, and this element certainly holds up. His Nutcracker has a moral. Instead of little Clara going on an adventure with the Nutcracker Prince, Kudelka created two squabbling siblings, Misha (Simon McNally) and Marie (Rebekah Bloomfield).
At first they fight like cats and dogs, but during the course of their journey to the Land of Snow and the Sugar Plum Fairy's domain, they discover how to get along, like working together to save the Sheep (Lise-Marie Jourdain) and her flock from the big bad Fox (James Leja).
The children's companions on the trip are two other created characters, their nurse Baba (Alejandra Perez-Gomez) and Peter the stable boy (Guillaume Côté). It is Peter who is transformed into the Nutcracker Prince. He falls in love with the Sugar Plum Fairy (Heather Ogden) and gets to dance the showy pas de deux finale with her.
A third fellow traveller is Uncle Nikolai (Jiri Jelinek). This character replaces the magician Drosselmeyer in the traditional version. It is also a plum role for the dancer because Kudelka has made Uncle Nikolai into a whirling dervish. The character is forever executing high jump spins, one after the other.
Now this role generally goes to short, fast dancers. Jelinek is tall and he fills the space, giving Uncle Nikolai a larger presence. The dancer tosses off the challenges of the part with a fierce energy. His Uncle Nikolai is a standout.
Jelinek is also an exceptional actor. I saw Uncle Nikolai do things I've never noticed before, like shaking his fist in anger at the Fox, or whispering in the horse's ear to tell it to dance.
Kudelka's brilliant choreography stands the test of time. First there are the interesting changes he made, like converting the Snow Queen pas de deux into a pas de trois. The two Icicles (McGee Maddox and Brendan Saye) manipulate the Snow Queen (Xiao Nan Yu) in mesmerizing ways, including the spectacular upside down carry, with Yu literally hanging head down in the air.
For the Land of Snow, Kudelka has created a breathtaking corps de ballet ensemble for the Snow Maidens. He captures the spiralling nature of falling snow through criss-cross patterning, and each viewing sparks a greater appreciation for the complexities of this choreography.
Kudelka has made the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux downright exciting. The usual structure has the two dancers perform together, then each gets a variation followed by a joint finale. Kudelka has played fast and loose with the two dancers interrupting each other's variation with gathering speed. Ogden and Côté pull off the choreographic tension with masterful precision.
I should also mention the Bee (Tina Pereira), another Kudelkian invention. Her choreography captures flight through a never-ending series of high kicks and split leaps. The Bee is a brilliant virtuoso intervention during the famous Waltz of the Flowers that has Pereira weaving through the corps de ballets in thrilling fashion.
And then there are the things in the ballet that are pure delight – those delicious moments that generate a big smile every time. As the ballet opens, I'm always waiting for the big laugh of surprise from the audience when the rat whizzes across the stage.
I also love the hilarious dancing bears, the female on point, the male on roller blades, and the cute antics of the performing horse, not to mention the adorable baby mice that crawl out from under the children's beds, and the little chefs chasing chickens.
My all time favourite vignette, however, is the endearing teeny tiny lambs (children of about four or five years old) that make up the flock, including the lone black one. They always generate a chuckle.
On the subject of children, Kudelka has built in roles for 60 students from Canada's National Ballet School. No matter how often I see The Nutcracker, I am continually amazed by how much they carry the show, first as children in the first-act party scene, and as courtiers in the second act.
After 17 years, you would think that Kudelka's Nutcracker has revealed all its riches, yet I'm still catching things for the first time. For example, I know the Sugar Plum Fairy kisses the top of Peter/Nutcracker Prince's head once. It has taken all these years to see the second kiss!
The National Ballet's The Nutcracker continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Jan. 5.