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Review: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' Presentation of THE NUTCRACKER at the National Arts Centre

Review: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' Presentation of THE NUTCRACKER at the National Arts Centre

The Montreal tradition is in Ottawa through December 4th.

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' presentation of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker is a Christmas tradition in Montreal that is akin to the Radio City Rockettes' Christmas Spectacular in New York City. Since 1964, countless Montreallers have brought their families to experience The Nutcracker's magical story unfold on stage. This year, prior to its Montreal run, Les Grands Ballets has brought their vision of The Nutcracker, choreographed by the Late Fernand Nault, and directed by Ivan Cavallari, to Ottawa's National Arts Centre for six performances. The National Arts Centre Orchestra, led by conductor Airat Ichmouratov, performs the famous score.

The Nutcracker is based on Alexandre Dumas' adaptation of a story called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King", written by E.T.A. Hoffman and originally published in 1816. Tchaikovsky's ballet premiered in Christmas 1892 and is now the most poplar ballet performed during the holiday season. A large-scale production with over 165 characters, 350 costumes, and the effort of more than 300 individuals, the presentation at the NAC features over 40 young dancers from the National Capital Region alongside Les Grands Ballets veterans. As there are multiple individuals who play the same role depending on the performance, the names of the cast included below are those who appeared in the opening night performance.

At an extravagant party on Christmas Eve, Clara (Rosemarie Brousseau) and Fritz (Thomas Lortie) are gifted with toys by Doctor Drosselmeyer (James Lyttle). Clara's gift is a nutcracker, but Fritz tries to take it and they ensue in a tug of war for its control that results in the nutcracker losing its head. Drosselmeyer whips out a handkerchief that he uses to repair the nutcracker. Clara places the nutcracker lovingly into a cradle and the children are marched off to bed. Clara, concerned about her nutcracker's wellbeing, creeps back downstairs in the middle of the night to check up on it. Suddenly, the nutcrackers come to life and an army of mice appear to wage war on the nutcrackers. Clara's beloved nutcracker (Hamilton Nieh) joins in the fray and Clara uses her slipper to stave off an attack on him, killing the Mouse King (Oscar Lambert). The nutcracker is then transformed into a prince (André Santos) and he and Clara are transported to the Kingdom of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier (Vanesa G. R. Montoya and Raphaël Bouchard).

Review: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' Presentation of THE NUTCRACKER at the National Arts Centre
Dancer Andrew Giday in The Nutcracker. ©Felix Renaud

The second act features the King of Candyland (Andrew Giday), a colourful, larger-than-life Cirque du Soleil-inspired character who also serves as some fun comic relief - after the Dance of the Mirlitons featuring the marzipan shepherd (Antoine Bertran) and his flock of sheep (Sofia Chiosa Faguy, Nahla Desrosiers-Ouassif, Laure Menu, Valéria Matte-Milosserdov), the King enters the stage with a large set of knitting needles, trailed by a ball of yarn. Clara and the Prince are treated to an assortment of sweets and cakes and the dances that follow are inspired by distant lands, notably Spain (Chocolate Dance), Arabia (Coffee Dance), and China (Tea Dance). In the past, The Nutcracker has been - rightfully - accused of perpetuating racist stereotypes in these dances. Because of the some of the choreography, this may be virtually impossible to entirely circumvent; however, the Grand Ballets' production does manage to sidestep this issue somewhat with its multicultural casting. This keeps the focus on the beauty of the dance itself, the contrasting musical styles, and the elaborate costumes, rather than on outdated caricatures.

Review: Les Grands Ballets Canadiens' Presentation of THE NUTCRACKER at the National Arts Centre
Dancers Chen Sheng and Vanessa Montoya in The Nutcracker.
©Sasha Onyshchenko

The highlight of the show, The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, was so beautifully executed, the dancers making the technical ballet steps appear effortless. With its instantly recognizable music, this act was simply divine to watch. After the final waltz, Clara is led away back to her bed on a gorgeous sled pulled by reindeer (Laura Harquail, Naomi Jascho, Hannah McIntosh, Anna Walker). Everyone will surely have their favourite moments and it is incredibly difficult to select from so many, but I particularly loved the Chocolate Dance, the subtleties in the performance of the Black Sheep (Valéria Matte-Milosserdov) and seeing the Christmas tree grow bigger and bigger in front of my eyes.

Les Grands Ballets' Nutcracker is a sumptuous affair, with a talented cast, lavish sets, and luxurious costumes. The child seated next to me was dressed to the nines and was absolutely riveted throughout the performance. The Nutcracker's place in the Christmas traditions of many families is certainly well deserved. The whole spectacle felt like a warm hug, and I cannot think of a better way to kickstart the holiday season for both young and old alike. Click here for more information or to purchase tickets for the remaining dates at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

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