by Mary Elizabeth Nordstrom
Portland, ME 9 December 2007. Victoria Mansion, an historic preservation unique to Portland’s history, was brought to life for the Christmas season on the stage of Merrill Auditorium in the Portland Ballet’s annual presentation of “The Victorian Nutcracker”. A replica of its elegant drawing room served as the primary setting for Act I.
Typical of the period, the walls were a somber purplish mauve. Highlighted dancers in American Victorian (1840-1901) costumes made a pleasant contrast against that backdrop. Actually, European-costumed productions have drawn inspiration from a similar period. Tchaikovsky introduced The Nutcracker Suite, a twenty-minute symphonic work that features eight numbers from the ballet, prior to its first staged performance in 1892. The Nutcracker as a ballet was less than a critical success in its premiere, but has become his most beloved composition.
This version of the full ballet begins with the entrance of the Morse family, followed by their Christmas Eve guests. The fantasy, recast as indigenous to Portland, replaces the traditional Uncle Drosselmeyer with the Godfather of the Morse’s niece, Olivia. The Godfather (John Saccone) bursts upon the scene with an armload of gifts of dolls of all sorts for the children, notably a toy soldier for the Morse’s nephew, Frank, (Bailey Baker), and an unusual nutcracker doll for their niece, Olivia (Hannah Wallace). The story unfolds from there: Dolls come to life and dance, after a moment when the Godfather stands, his back to the audience, opening at arms’ length his remarkably huge, billowing black cape. Revelry proceeds while the children, guests at Victoria Mansion, show off some of the fine dance training received under the tutelage of the faculty of the Portland School of Ballet. The elders, played principally by members of the Portland Ballet, move gracefully in the background.
After the Morse’s guests leave, Olivia returns to take another look at her nutcracker doll. She falls asleep, through the magic of her Godfather. She dreams that she visits the world of toys under the huge Christmas tree, and becomes involved in a fight between toy soldiers and a giant mouse army. The Nutcracker prince saves her, and takes her on a magical trip through The Snow Kingdom to the Land of Sweets. The lovely pas de deux, danced by Snow Prince (Tyler Sperry) and Snow Princess (Nell Green) received well-deserved applause at the curtain following Act I. The angelic voices of the Victorian Nutcracker Festival Singers complemented the beauty of this scene.
This performance was staged in the style of Baryshnikov, who, as Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre, revised the traditional role of the Nutcracker to that of principal dancer. Traditionally, a young Nutcracker/Prince would sit beside the girl, Clara, (Portland Ballet’s Olivia) while watching the dream sequence dances. On this occasion the role of the Nutcracker/Prince was danced admirably by Wyatt Barr.
In Act II, Olivia and her Godfather sit together and watch a kaleidoscope of enchanting dance numbers, all whimsical and highly enjoyable. Among them were the exuberant Spanish chocolate dancers; the Chinese tea scene, featuring a huge dragon - many dainty feet moving rapidly below its body; the sweetness and delicacy of the ribbon candy dance; the frolic of the Russian dancers; the vivid and fluid choreography of the Arabian dance; the joyful innocence of Mother Ginger’s children; the luxurious waltz of costumed flowers; and of course, the climactic Sugar Plum Fairy (Elisa Gerasin). The Finale was entirely delightful as a reprise of all the participants’ roles in the dream sequence.
As the Portland Ballet’s motto implies, “The future of dance in Maine” is as important to the company as the performance of the moment. The intimate collaboration of the principal dancers with the Portland School of Ballet including its C. O. R. P. S. program is a wonderful model of apprenticeship. It provides pre-professional dance students the opportunity to dance with seasoned professional mentors. “The Victorian Nutcracker” is a success on several levels, perhaps the most important of which is the benefit derived by the aspiring young dancers of the Portland School of Ballet.
The Portland Ballet Orchestra was conducted by Peter Rubart; the Victorian Nutcracker Festival Singers were directed by Mark Nordli.