Review: THE NUTCRACKER by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Welcomes the Holiday Season at The Soraya
'Tis the season for the popular Christmas-themed ballet THE NUTCRACKER to fill stages around the world offering families the chance to experience the emotionally engaging story of Clara and the dreamlike journey she takes to the Land of Sweets with the Nutcracker as her guide. During the December 7 and 8 weekend, The Soraya's resident dance company, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, perhaps best known for edgy programs featuring the most notable contemporary choreography, kicked off the troupe's fifth Soraya season at Cal State Northridge with something different: the most traditional of story ballets. With Tchaikovsky's original music, this storybook production, choreographed by ASFB executive director Jean-Phillippe Malaty and artistic director Tom Mossbrucker, set THE NUTCRACKER in the Victorian era, beginning with the resplendent holiday party and concluding with the fantastical scenes in the second act centered around a bright and colorful carousel.
Since its founding in 1996, ASFB has staged the full-length ballet annually. And while this year's presentation was not the most technically-brilliant due to the lack of leaping I have seen performed by so many other ballet companies during the entire production, especially during the Russian dance in Act 2 which was missing entirely from this one, the colorful presentation and sheer enthusiasm evident by almost 100 performers, including over 70 children from Los Angeles Youth Ballet (the non-profit arm of the Los Angeles Ballet Academy in Encino) and students from USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, made the production a perfect way to welcome the season for families of all ages. "We feel very lucky to have found these great community partners," says Malaty. "They will be dancing side by side with professionals."
And when it comes to young performers dancing with trained professionals, I must tell you that one of the cutest moments during the show was during the Waltz of the Flowers when many very young children dressed as Bumblebees danced out from the wings into the midst of the lovely, bright pink ballerina-flowers. "We don't take our production too seriously. We like it to be light and fun," says ASFB Executive Director Jean-Philippe Malaty, who co-founded the duel-city dance company 24 years ago with Artistic Director Tom Mossbrucker. It is traditional with a contemporary twist, entertaining and cinematic, with dashes of humor. "There's a child-like quality to it, an innocence" he says. And in turn, much laughter and parental pride in the audience!
The key role of Clara (who receives the nutcracker as a Christmas gift) was shared by 14-year-olds Brynn Iby (Saturday) and Nadia Gruhlke (Sunday). Clara's annoying younger brother Fritz was danced by 12-year-old Malcolm McLaurin-Takumi. Andrea Paris-Gutierrez, the Youth Ballet's president and artistic director, who leads a program that is 27-years strong, with 600 student dancers, shared "Jean-Philippe and Melanie (Doskocil, who runs the School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet) auditioned and coached our students," says Paris-Gutierrez. "It was an amazing, extraordinary process." And I have no doubt each of the young people who participated will continue to find inspiration through the arts for their entire lives.
There were two guest stars who appeared during the Saturday night performance - The Joffrey Ballet's Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez, who danced as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Raised in Los Angeles, Dylan Gutierrez performed as a child with the Los Angeles Opera and at 16 was a finalist in The Music Center's "Spotlight" scholarship program. L.A. audiences last saw him dance the title role of The Joffrey's "Romeo and Juliet" at The Music Center partnering his girlfriend (now fiancée) Mendoza. The two relished their time in the spotlight, but I found their performance lacking the real flare I expected to see, with lifts such as the type you see on "Dancing With the Stars" highlighting their performance, with nary a leap performed by the Cavalier as I have usually seen done.
But there is something much more important than that about bringing Dylan Gutierrez into the production. "We thought it would make sense to bring Dylan back home in the role of the Cavalier," said Malaty. "This is the school he grew up in, where the kids now idolize him. 'Nutcracker' is about much more than the steps. It's about generations of dancers and audiences sharing the traditions." Again, another great way in which the arts will continue to inspire generations through the sharing of skills with those who will follow in your footsteps.
Like most classic productions of THE NUTCRACKER, ASFB's production featured Chinese, Arabian, Spanish and Russian variations in Act 2. But these dances were far from traditional presentations due to very contemporary renditions offered by guest artists. Most notable was the Arabian with the incredibly athletic and nimble Katrina Amerine performing the entire routine on silks, a very modern and captivating take given the Victorian era setting.
For the Spanish dance, La Emi's incredible Flamenco skill, developed since the age of four, was a standout with her engaging persona and castanets filling The Soraya with a joyful noise.
And of course, the arrival of the Snow Queen (Jenny Winton), Snow King (Jonah Delgado), Snow Prince (Matthew Gilmore) and the Snowflakes at the end of Act 1 brings the wonder of falling snow to the stage. Just be sure to watch the faces of children seated near you to remember the joy you first experienced when the wonders of stage magic were first presented to you!
On December 21 and 22, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet returns to the Aspen District Theatre in Aspen, CO to end the year with four more performances of THE NUTCRACKER, one of the troupe's signature pieces now in its 23rd season. Tickets and more information at www.aspensantafeballet.com
For more information about upcoming performances at The Soraya, please visit https://www.thesoraya.org/
Photo credit: Luis Luque | Luque Photography