BWW Reviews: Ballet Austin Debuts New Designs for THE NUTCRACKER
It's tough to think of a production in the Austin area that's been as hyped as Ballet Austin's current production of The Nutcracker. Now in its 51st year, this year's show features new sets and costumes, the first time in over a decade that Ballet Austin's Nutcracker has received such a makeover. Though the designs cost a pretty penny, I'm not sure they enhance the show as much as they could. Nevertheless, the incredible performers and outstanding choreography aren't hampered by them, either.
Of the new designs, Judanna Lynn's costumes are superior to Holly Highfill's set. Lynn's costumes envision the Christmas season and the iconic Nutcracker story though a child's eyes. Every element is slightly exaggerated and seems derived from children's literature or art. The partygoers in Act I are decidedly Dickensian. The mice that arrive after the party look cartoony, as does the Rat King. The costumes of the various members of the Sugarplum Fairy's court all have the feel of a child's perception of traditional cultural outfits. The Spanish dancers wear colorful matador costumes, the Arabic dancers look like they've stepped out of 1001 Arabian Nights, and the French evoke images of Baroque paintings. Though the costumes are spectacular when viewed individually of each other, they don't feel as if they're all from the same world or the same show. When assembled as a whole, a sense of cohesion is lacking.
The set by Holly Highfill isn't necessarily bad. It's just underwhelming. Though the sets are brightly colored, they're flat and somewhat lacking in personality and wonder. That flatness is somewhat understandable. With ballet and other dance productions, set designers have the challenge of keeping the stage as open as possible to provide room for the dancers and choreography. Still, other productions of The Nutcracker manage to keep the stage open while still giving the illusion of a fully realized, three dimensional world. Highfill's sets fail to do the same.
Thankfully the strengths of Ballet Austin's Nutcracker don't rely on the sets or costumes. This is still a dazzling production well worth seeing due to the spectacular choreography by Stephen Mills and the incredibly talented cast of dancers. Each moment has a mood and character of its own, though there are a few standouts. The Snow Queen and King pas de deux at the end of Act I, superbly danced by Rebecca Johnson and Christopher Swaim, is majestic and elegant, as are the Waltz of the Flowers and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the second act. Preston Andrew Patterson's dance solo during the Chinese dance is energetic and whimsical, and Ian J. Bethany's solo work during the Russian dance is wildly athletic.
Though I'm not convinced that the new sets and costumes live up to the hype, The Nutcracker is still a spectacular and stunning event. In Stephen Mills, Austin has a world-class choreographer, and the dancers of Ballet Austin are nothing short of amazing.
Running time: Approximately 2 hours including one 20 minute intermission.
THE NUTCRACKER, produced by Ballet Austin, plays The Long Center at 701 W. Riverside Dr, Austin 78704. Performances are Thursday 12/19 - Sunday 12/22 at 7:30pm with additional performances on Sunday 12/15 and Saturday 12/21 - Monday 12/23 at 2pm. Tickets are $12-$72. For tickets and more information, visit www.balletaustin.org.
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