Review: BALLET WEST: THE NUTCRACKER at Kennedy Center

Fresh, vivid production is also historical

By: Nov. 25, 2023
Review: BALLET WEST: THE NUTCRACKER at Kennedy Center

The annual choices among ballet performances of “The Nutcracker” are as vast and varied as holiday candies. 

The first to appear at the Kennedy Center this year is from Ballet West, based in Salt Lake City. And as brisk and fresh as it feels, it comes as something of a surprise that its lineage goes back to the very first U.S. performance of what’s become the most popular ballet in the country by far. 

Although composed in 1892 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “The Nutcracker” didn’t receive its first complete U.S. production until 1944 by the San Francisco Ballet, choreographed by Willam Christensen (Balanchine’s version was still a decade away). Christensen’s work not only helped popularize the holiday classic but remained an annual tradition in San Francisco, where it continues, often in other versions. Christensen’s own choreography continues at Ballet West, which he founded in 1963. He died in 2001 but his original choreography for the nation’s first “Nutcracker” continues, with a fine balance between good natured humor and scene setting in the first half, giving way to the pageantry and technical dazzle of the dances in the second half. It's making its first Kennedy Center appearance since 2018.

Emily Adams, a company principal since 2015,  is riveting as the Sugar Plum Fairy  accompanied by Hadriel Diniz as Cavalier, and though their pas de duex is well executed, they often are able to soar better individually at the show’s end.

Children abound in the production, perhaps doubling the number of adult dancers on stage. And while it sometimes feels like a recital level quality in their group ensembles, they lend a spirit and verve to the production, while helping engage a new generation of young ballet fans in the audience (one of whom was quite shocked with the Nutcracker toy was broken in half opening night).

It’s a surprise that once the Snow Queen and King (Katlyn Addison and Adrian Fry) and the squad of snowflakes introduce young Clara (Lucia Muchetti) and her Nutcracker Prince (Vinicius Lima) to its snowy fairyland, a sled takes them overseas to a tropical setting, where David Heuvel’s costume design works with John Wayne Cook’s terrific set design to create an unexpectedly tropical milieu - with delightful fruit-colored tones, sunny skies and background architecture representing the myriad of cultures to be presented to them in dance — from China to Russia, Spain to Arabia. 

Cook’s flat-painted sets, providing depths through layers of flats, are very effective  from the start, when action begins outside the toy store where Dr. Drosselmeyer (Dominic Ballard) picks up his nutcracker gift, to the exterior of the Stahlbaum house where the holiday party is being thrown. In each case, indoor activity can be glimpsed through warmly-lit windows.

There’s a brief, nifty interlude, too in which puppetry (designed by Cory Thorell) indicates a voyage by water. Mike Tutaj also designed projections that include celebratory fireworks at the end. 

Part of the glory of any Kennedy Center “Nutcracker” is that they alway rely on live performance of the score, and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra under conductor Jared Oaks, delivers.

Some effects seem a little more supercharged than necessary — from a flash to turn the toy into soldier to cannon fire to end the war against the Mouse King. And there may be a little too much comic miming among guests in the party scene (and a Dancing Bear who daps). 

But, fast-moving and continually delightful, the Ballet West version of “The Nutcracker” is surely the one to savor this season and to seek out in coming years. 

Running time: One hour, 49 minutes with one intermission.

Photo credit: Ballet West’s Emily Adams and Hadriel Diniz in “The Nutcracker.” Photo by Beau Pearson. 

“Ballet West: The Nutcracker” continues through Nov. 26 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW. Tickets are available at 202-467-4600 or at the link below.