Nothing says “It’s the holidays!” like “The Nutcracker” ballet. American Ballet Theatre’s (ABT) version—continuing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through Dec. 19—puts ballet front and center of this magical story, and makes palpable one little girl’s romantic heart.
The rich story of “The Nutcracker”—originally based on a tale by E.T.A. Hoffman, revised by Alexander Dumas and choreographed as a ballet by Marius Petipa in 1892, with score by Russian composer Tchaikovsky—tells of young Clara, who receives an exquisite nutcracker doll from her mysterious godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, during her family’s grand Christmas Eve party.
At midnight, Clara dreams of the brave nutcracker fighting off an army of mice led by a ferocious mouse king. The nutcracker becomes a prince, leading Clara on a delightful journey through lands of snow and sweets, with dances from around the world.
ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie brings out a somewhat more fraught dream sequence than usual by having Clara encounter not just not just dancing flowers, but buzzing bees threatening to sting, and not just a winter wonderland, but a snowstorm from which she and the nutcracker are rescued by Drosselmeyer in a sleigh.
More significantly, the nutcracker prince is Clara’s age rather than older. Though the young nutcracker is gallant, the two frolic in the snow as children. Similarly, though the mouse king is in charge of the army, a rascally young mouse prince is the chief troublemaker, making the “villainy” more annoying than menacing.
In Clara’s dreamy imagination, though, she and her young nutcracker are soon replaced by older versions of themselves in lovely and romantic dance sequences by choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, exquisitely performed Hee Seo and Cory Stearns on opening night.
Ratmansky also choreographs elegant ensemble sequences in which the harmonized dancers’ floaty arms balance strong yet willowy legs and pointed toes that allow the them to twirl like the tiny music-box dolls that emulate them. Dancing truly takes center stage in this production.
Beautiful costuming by Richard Hudson only enhances the ensemble dancers’ loveliness. Soft, not-too-white fabric laced with subtle sparkles suggests dancing snowflakes. On the dancing flowers of the second half, poufy and fringy pink and red ombré dresses swirl delightfully, though four bees in contrasting black and yellow skintight costumes flit sharply among them, stealing the flowers’ limelight.
The Sugar Plum Fairy and her consort are more whimsically dressed in green and purple textured like icing, as if from a Dr. Seuss book. And the dancers from distant lands exotically evoke countries like Spain with red and black flamenco dresses and Arabia with sparkly mauve veils. The Russian dancers are more clownlike than acrobatic, and the mother gingerbread house with wide parasol skirt hiding her children is more like a large Mother Goose. The Chinese dance featuring two precisely synchronized performers is the highlight of the global numbers.
One only wishes the same inspired costuming could have been brought to the set as well, which Hudson also designed, though often more austerely. The opening-scene kitchen is coldly Nordic, with hanging sausages that the mischievous mice manage to snag. And all the dancers in the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy are initially screened or caged behind what seems like a jail or inner-city school fence.
A simple house is a recurring motif—reminiscent of the dollhouse Clara and her friends play with during the Christmas party—but not clearly parallel. Clara and the young nutcracker retreat into a small house when replaced by their older counterparts, suggesting a play on perspective as in Alice in Wonderland, similar to how Clara magically becomes small perched on a giant chair to view the battle between the nutcracker and mice.
Regardless, and despite the relative minimalism of its set, what you’ll mostly remember from ABT’s production is the astounding beauty and grace of its dance—especially the riveting lead dancers—with engaging performances by the younger Clara, young nutcracker prince and even the cutely impish mouse prince. And through it all, as directed by Ormsby Wilkins, the Pacific Symphony plays Tchaikovsky’s melodic score perfectly.
Children in the audience will have much to relate to in ABT’s production, while adults may appreciate the longing ardor of young Clara’s romantic vision. The strange and slightly disturbing Drosselmeyer as ‘anti-Santa’ is like a bonus gift. For what is Christmas without a little family weirdness? It balances an otherwise sweet wish-fulfillment fantasy that ABT expertly brings to life.
American Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” continues at Segerstrom Hall of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, through Dec. 19. Tickets range from $30 to $188 for performances Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7 p.m.; Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; and Sunday at 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online at SCFTA.org or by calling the box office at (714) 556-2787. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing is required.