Deirdre Kelly

Nutcracker Memories


The National Ballet of Canada today posted an image from the photo shoot Fred Lum and I  did way back in 1998 for my Globe and Mail review of James Kudelka’s version of  The Nutcracker, showing the various ballerinas poised to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. Here are the words which accompanied it. Several of the dancers mentioned are no longer with the company, among them the wonderful Jeremy Ransom. Too often dancers are forgotten after they stop performing , so I hope this brings a few of them back, if just for a moment.

The Arts: Ballet
Stunning Nutcracker keeps on getting better
Dance Critic
12 December 1998
The Globe and Mail

The Hummingbird Centre in Toronto on Thursday

The only snow Toronto has seen so far this year fell on the stage of the Hummingbird Centre on Thursday night. Even children in the audience were mystified. “What’s that, mommy?” squeaked a small voice in the darkness. “Is that rain?”

While El Nino and his sister are giving Southern Ontario its balmiest December ever, the National Ballet of Canada might be having a hard time convincing denizens of the city that Christmas is just around the corner. A good number of seats were empty on the opening night of the company’s annual performance of The Nutcracker. And this was a shame, because the ballet has never looked better.

National director James Kudelka first unveiled his new version of the Christmas classic in 1995. With sumptuous costumes, sets by award-winning designer Santo Loquasto, and state-of-the art stagecraft that allows quick scene changes and dazzling pyrotechnics, the $2.3-million production — the most expensive in the company’s repertoire — is pure eye-candy. The Sugar Plum Fairy roosts in a large, golden Faberge Egg; the Snow Queen frolics in a winter wonderland of diamond-and-turquoise icicles; costumes are edged in ermine and jewels. This is a ballet for the people that wears the crown of the czars.

The astonishing visuals at first dwarfed the choreography, making Kudelka’s intricate steps seem not to have the dramatic punch of the overall design. But three years later, the playing field is levelling. In a way, we’ve become used to the grandeur, though that doesn’t mean ingenious touches like a roller-blading bear and a dancing horse have lost their charm. Rather it means that we are no longer hypnotized. Released from the spell of novelty, we can start looking more closely at the dance itself. And what we discover is nothing short of brilliant.

Kudelka’s task was to replace company founder Celia Franca’s tired-looking Nutcracker with an up-to-date version that could rival Disney and its bratty offspring, the megamusical. But only a fool would think that simple cosmetic changes could do it. Kudelka knew that to update The Nutcracker he also had to reinvigorate the art of ballet itself. People would come once to see the exploding canons. But they would return only if there was something else to hold their interest.

Kudelka instantly grabs our attention not with lasers but with dance. Peter the stable boy (danced on Thursday by the refined and elegant Aleksandar Antonijevic) opens the ballet with a sprightly solo that gives a hint of things to come. The light and buoyant steps are fast-paced and complicated. And the upper body is loose and expressive, with the arms creating clear-cut patterns. Kudelka lends the body a rhythmic suppleness that is in tune with Tchaikovsky’s mellifluous score. The relationship between the dancing and the music is so intimate that the ballet comes off as a true harmonic structure. Dancing defines character and advances plot. Mime is mercifully scarce.

Kudelka weaves texture into the ballet through symmetry and dramatic contrast. Solos alternate with group dances. Young people follow old. And working-class people interchange with aristocrats. Dancers pretending to be musicians play harmoniously on their instruments and then a boisterous group of children drown them out with their cacophonous playing of toy bugles. In Act 1 there is a snow fight; in Act 2, a food fight. These repeating sequences lend order and balance to the ballet, from its gentle beginning through to its triumphant conclusion.

In between is splendid dancing. Jeremy Ransom’s Nikolai, the wild-eyed magician who makes the fantasy unfold, was a beguiling mixture of madness and magnanimity. Stacey Shiori Minagawa, who dances the bumblebee, indeed created a buzz with her long and sensual lines.

Jennifer Fournier as the sparkling Snow Queen outdanced Icicle attendants Ryan Boorne and Kevin Law, both of whom looked fearful of losing their footing in this most difficult pas de trois.

Greta Hodgkinson, who partnered Antonijevic in the second act, was a delectable Sugar Plum Fairy. Her role demands extraordinary strength and precision, and Hodgkinson delivered all with a smooth and feathery style that masked the effort.

And finally the children. The National Ballet School swells the production to prodigious proportions. Tiny feet are everywhere, from the crowded barn scene through to the red-and-gold glory of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s palace. And they don’t simply look cute. Kudelka works the young dancers hard, giving them expansive travelling steps and complex dances that bestow on them a healthy respect. So bring on the snow. Nothing in this Nutcracker leaves you cold.

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