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Flash Review, 12-22: Tulsa Turnaround
Angelini Cracks his 'Nutcracker'

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2006 Alicia Chesser

TULSA, Oklahoma -- Some might wonder why, having just run a "deja vu" of my 2003 Flash Review of the premiere of Tulsa Ballet's wholly revamped version of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," the Dance Insider is bringing you yet more coverage of this production. The answer is simple: quite a lot can happen to a new ballet in three years! And quite a lot has happened to this Nouveau "Nut," seen Sunday afternoon at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center. It's been revised, tightened, and invigorated by an impressive roster of dancers. In short, it's turned into a real success.

As I noted in my earlier review, it was a shock to this admitted traditionalist when Tulsa artistic director Marcello Angelini announced he was doing away with the beloved true-to-(Lev) Ivanov "Nutcracker" that Tulsa audiences had seen for decades, the one with the lovely (but rather boring, I suppose) parents' waltz in the first act and poor little Clara sitting quietly (that is, uncomfortably) on her throne for the entirety of the second. Angelini did away not only with the traditional choreography, but with the entire story-line. First, he transformed the house of Herr Stahlbaum into a glamorous party hosted by the Paris Opera Ballet. Next, the Sugarplum Kingdom became a dream-world in which the little girl, a young dancer in the making, dreams she's all grown up and dancing with -- even engaged to -- her idol Charles, a great danseur himself and the nephew of her teacher Christian Elias Drosselmeier, of the Paris Opera Ballet school. It was, as I say, a shock, and on my first viewing I was not at all convinced that, in choreographic terms in particular, Angelini had improved on the classic.

The classic still calls to me. But this new "new 'Nutcracker'" seems an entirely different animal this season than it did three years ago: cleaner, tighter, more entertaining, and more serious in dance terms. The first place to note improvement is in the libretto published in the program. By an error, the libretto that appeared there in 2003 was a draft version, incomplete and confusing on its own terms and when one tried to square it with events onstage. To those of us who were used to the usual old "Nutcracker," it was difficult indeed (with or without the misleading published libretto) to follow what was happening on a very busy stage -- busy with new choreography, new relationships, and new subplots: an unrequited romance between the ballet mistress and Drosselmeier, and another between the classroom pianist and the ballet mistress; and still another interaction between the parents and ballet students, not to mention the evolution of Marie into a young woman dancing out her dreams in a dream, etcetera., etcetera. The current libretto is thorough and clear as could be; finally the story Angelini set out to tell makes sense on the page and on the stage. He has used the heart of the ballet -- the pas de deux for the Prince and the Sugarplum Fairy -- as his starting point, so that the story becomes, even more vividly and imaginatively than in the original, one of love and growing up and the magic of dance. It really is an ingenious concept, which comes through much more clearly now than it did on first viewing.

One of the neatest achievements of this reworking is to make the transitions between scenes less obscure, especially in Act One. It is now clear, for example, that the ballet students from Act One, Scene One are present with their parents in the Opera Garnier foyer in Scene Two to witness Drosselmeier's announcement that the Paris Opera Ballet will present its first "Nutcracker." (Before, it was unclear who the adults in the foyer were, and why there were kids hanging around.) The relationship between Drosselmeier and the ballet mistress (danced by Georgia Snoke, my own character dance teacher when I was a student at the Tulsa School of Ballet) is better defined, as well, and the very funny dance between the ballet mistress and the aged pianist (played by Joshua Trader in one of the best character performances I've ever seen, complete with an aching back, a flask, suspenders, and a gait worthy of Groucho Marx) no longer seems too long. The dance for the parents in the foyer -- with black tuxedo tails and glittering flapper dresses flying -- remains a stunner, sparkling with thrilling body angles and kaleidoscopic configurations.

There is new vividness, too, in the cast. The main figures from 2003 are still here: for example, Sarkis Kaltakchian as Drosselmeier, Snoke as the ballet mistress, Trader as the pianist, Alfonso Martin as Charles, and Ma Cong as the Mouse King and the Russian dancer. But there are some wonderful surprises. Martin, who returned to Tulsa this season after some time at Boston Ballet, is masculine, romantic, powerful, and tender in this role that was created for him. As Angelini commented in an interview with the Tulsa Performing Arts Center's Intermission magazine, "it fits him like a glove." Jenna McCoy was the very face of purity as the girl Marie, bringing a calm, confident openness and modesty to a role that sometimes brings out the worst sort of showiness in child dancers. In 2003 I saw Tara Hench in the magnificent "Arabian" dance; this performance featured Rene Olivier, a dancer whose passionate subtlety was unbelievably effective in this quiet, sensual, and extremely demanding sequence (usually a solo or duet, here a quartet).

Best of all was Karina Gonzalez as the adult Marie, into whom the young Marie is transformed after enduring the battle with the mice (the Nutcracker Prince -- Michael Eaton -- at her side) and emerging triumphant and mature. Gonzalez brought tears to my eyes as she emerged from Drosselmeier's cloak (having changed places with McCoy) to see her new self in a mirror. The freshness in her expression was very moving, and she made her way through the first moments of her new life with a riveting delicacy: half tentative, half bursting at the seams.

I still hold, as I wrote in my 2003 Flash, that there is something uniquely powerful in the pure-dance exploration of a young woman's growth in the Ivanov Act Two, where the Sugarplum Fairy "stands for" Marie and demonstrates, by the simple means of classical choreography in the Grand Pas de Deux, how a girl becomes a woman. But Gonzalez's Marie has made me conclude that the Angelini version -- in which it's the dancer herself who makes the transformation, in "human" terms -- has a great deal to offer. Gonzalez is a very young dancer, but suddenly this season, and particularly in this performance, she is a ballerina. No more mugging, no fancy business: now she's investigating her talent, filling it with her soul, and in this role it shows. (Though she still needs to work on keeping her chin up -- not figuratively but literally!)

Daniela Buson, who played the grown-up Marie in 2003, was rich and strong and full of ardor. But it was Gonzalez's girlishness that made this role make sense for me. My favorite moment in her performance came at the end of the "Snow" pas de deux. After she whirled around the stage with Martin, both of them rosy-cheeked from their new/old love, their movement suddenly slowed and slowed and drew to a delicious stop in a reclined embrace ... and Gonzalez closed her eyes and let her body relax as if she realized, for a moment, that she was really asleep and dreaming all along. There was joy in her dancing, joy in finding all the nooks and crannies in Angelini's choreography (and there are many, hither and thither as it goes!), joy in living the dream of every little girl who dreams of dancing. Angelini's vision for this story and Gonzalez as Marie are a magical match.

It turns out, in fact, that the Tulsa director's "Nutcracker" holds more (or maybe simply different) challenges for dancers than the traditional "Nut." On first viewing, they were lost in the shuffle; now, perhaps in a combination of directorial revision, dancer reinvigoration, and reviewer revisitation, they shine through. Both acts are full of them: the ballet students' dance with its charming classical rigor; the parents' dance with its glamorous angles; the clamorous whirl of the battle; and the fast nonstop flurry of the Snowflake scene, the choreography of which I described three years ago as resembling ice-dancing, but which now looks much stronger and more dynamic, especially among the men with their manege of thrusting jetés. The Dance of the Flowers in Act Two appears less busy to me this year, as well: more formal and more musically attentive.

Angelini's ensembles are still stronger than his duets and solos, but the latter were so well danced in this performance that they held their own. (The character of Charles in particular is called upon for a massive array of challenging solos, all of which Martin performed with aplomb.) I think I have a greater appreciation this year, too, for the ideas Angelini tries to express in his pas de deux. He himself was well-regarded as a partner during his dancing career, and indeed the man's role in each pas de deux here is much more involved and interesting than in the traditional versions. I complained in 2003 that the only dimension in his pas de deux was "sweep"; looking at them again, I still see that, but I also see continuity with his goal in the rest of the ballet, which is to tell a human story with complex emotions rather than a conventional story with "clear" emotions. Thus, choreographically speaking, they focus more on expressing romance (via quick changes of direction and speed and lots of shifting from air to floor and back again) than on articulating a pure dance idea (in other words, trying to express something new by means of the traditional pas de deux structure). Simply put, although they lack the classical structure and depth to which one is accustomed in the Ivanov version, Angelini's pas de deux do indeed have more to say than I originally thought.

I'll refer you to my 2003 Flash for details about Paolino Libralato and Luisa Spinatelli's sets and costumes, all original, all breathtaking. They remain breathtaking -- simply extraordinary examples of the craft. I'll also refrain from too much more discussion of the Tulsa Ballet dancers, having praised them sufficiently in previous Flashes. From the top of the roster to the bottom (cheers here to the dancers of Tulsa Ballet II, who filled out the corps), these men and women are supremely well-trained and rehearsed, not just in technique but in style. I must mention again the lovely upper-body work these dancers demonstrate. Such buoyancy and expressiveness seem hard to find these days -- and they're qualities on which the old Tulsa Ballet, under the direction of Ballet Russe alumni Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin, prided itself.

Angelini has accomplished an effective revision of his "Nutcracker," making it not just a piece of glamour and showmanship but a true dance spectacle in which the ballet values are as strong as the entertainment values. And entertainment it certainly is: the packed house at the performance I attended (including dozens and dozens of very well-behaved children) was riveted throughout the afternoon. It's a measure of a good director, not to mention a good choreographer, that he or she has the wisdom to look with humility and imagination on his or her own work. Angelini is just such a director, continuing to lead his 32-member "regional" company into big, fascinating territory.

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