by Mary Elizabeth Nordstrom
Portland, ME, 30 November 2008. At the conclusion of the finale of Maine State Ballet’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s winter holiday classic, Nutcracker, in Merrill Auditorium this afternoon, Santa Claus crashed the scene to help his reindeer pull the heroine Clara’s sleigh across and off stage to end the show.
This appendage to the stage directions of the original score/script was added with good intentions in the spirit of the season but may lead many a child who attended this performance to miss a multiple choice question later in life in music appreciation class. What do you suppose they will answer when one test selection states: Santa Claus plays a role in the Nutcracker ballet? Or on a TV quiz show when asked whether there is a Santa Claus role in the classical Nutcracker? It was overkill, but the audience of young families did love seeing the jolly old elf!
The outstanding dancer of today’s production appeared to be the Sugarplum Fairy, Rebecca Purser, and her support from the Nutcracker prince, Glenn Davis, was substantial. Elizabeth Dragoni as Clara, and Jonathan Miele as Uncle Drosselmeyer were both delightful in their roles. The total effect of the regional production was a joyous afternoon, time well-spent.
Russian composer, Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky, (1840-1893) wrote the Nutcracker Suite for ballet and it premiered in 1892. Among the myriad interpretations of Nutcracker that exist, my yardstick is principally those 'classical' ones of famous dance companies in Boston, New York, and in Winston-Salem in the 70s when the North Carolina School of the Arts was home base of the North Carolina Dance Theatre, and later when former Ballets Russes dancers Tyven and Lindgren produced it with students from NCSA at the Stevens Center there. Linda MacArthur Miele was choreographer for this singular Maine State Ballet presentation.
The MSB interpretation of Act I began creatively in a workshop where the toymaker Drosselmeyer was creating the Nutcracker doll along with other gifts. Soon the host family’s two children, Clara and her brother, peeked through the keyholes in a doorway cleverly painted on scrim. The backdrop was then back- lighted so the audience could share what the children saw inside the grand ballroom where the Christmas tree was central to the scene. Once the children were allowed into the grand hall, there was exuberant dancing and gift-giving as soon as Uncle Drosselmeyer had appeared with his creations. One priceless moment of choreography utilizing the young boys’ gifts of brass instruments, featuring cross-stage motion in concert with the orchestra, was a sheer delight.
Orchestra conductor, Karla M. Kelley, got a good Nutcracker performance from the Maine State Ballet Orchestra, by remaining totally in control, often with brisk tempi as required. The snow scene at the end of Act I was set against a backdrop painted with excessively heavy-looking stylized pine branches. After leaving the toyshop and ballroom action, with bear-proportioned mice and toy soldiers in battle, my focus wandered from the music and dance to notice the non-classical backdrop. The snow maidens tended to take my gaze from the overbearing branches from time to time. The falling snow glittered with red lights that made it look fake if it was indeed pure white. The Southern Maine Children’s Chorus, arranged on steps at either side the stage, sang very well indeed.
Act II was set in colorful early 20th-Century Art Deco scenery, with oversize candy cane pillars and stylized flowers beneath great flourishes of whimsical imagination. If one fancies that genre of design, it was done to perfection by Gail Csoboth, who also costumed the show. Each traditional dance ensemble of Clara’s entertainers appeared successively against this same backdrop, some costumes working with it better than others. The black bodices of Waltz of the Flowers costumes seemed heavy against the colors of the backdrop, however; the flowers might have seemed more delicate with completely rose-colored costumes, rather than just the skirts. Many times the costume colors set against the multicolored backdrop made the scenes too ‘busy.’ The unique gingerbread house costume for Mother Ginger, worn by Ron Trell, was an inspiration, however colorful: it stood on its own merits.
The finale, colliding colors and all, was vibrant and delightful right up to the anticlimax of Santa's appearance.