The American Academy of Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” offers the best of what this ballet is meant to provide: holiday tradition, whimsical abandon and a prima ballerina who will knock your tutu off.
Maris Battaglia, director of the Clarence-based dance studio, has assembled, yet again, an exquisite and disciplined company of young ballet students. It is no wonder they put on such a tailored performance; they’ve been trained well.
The annual outing, which was staged Saturday afternoon and night in the UB Center for the Arts and will be repeated today, is a student production, as many “Nutcrackers” around the country are. Adult ballerinas and male ballet dancers perform starring roles, with classes of students ranging in age from college to, indeed, baby, perform narrative routines. There is hierarchy here, a throne to which all aspire to ascend.
And unlike “Black Swan,” this pursuit isn’t all about the spotlight. It is a team sport here, where everybody plays her or his position for the sake of a win. The trophy is a beautiful ballet.
And it isn’t an easy win.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet follows a direct, if not entirely logical, narrative: after her well-to-do family’s magnificent Christmas party, in which a young Clara receives a Russian nutcracker from her magician Godfather (the illogical begins here), the house is turned down and Clara rests her head. Suddenly the nutcracker casts a spell of some sort on the house, whisking Clara away to all corners of her imagination, to candylands and snow castles, to China and, inexplicably, in this production, a circus sideshow.
That whisked abandon is the dough to this huge cutout cookie, in which a little girl at first frightened by the unintelligible – a wooden doll kidnapping her, essentially – is transported to magical lands of merriment and wonder. In a hot-air balloon, no less. (Foy, the renowned production company that makes Peter Pan and others stage characters fly, makes their technical work shine throughout this production.)
It’s sweet, but not tooth-decaying; magical, but not ridiculous.
This traditional story is told exactly as you know it, mostly. Battaglia takes some artistic license with a few parts, some of which are barely noticeable and some of which are startlingly off base.
For starters, Tchaikovsky’s score, which is an undisputed (holidaywise, anyway) masterpiece, is needlessly amended by short sojourns into pop music land.
During the nutcracker’s midnight transformation from wooden toy boy to man travel agent, a fleet of mice, led by the Mouse King, battle in the living room, during which a toddler-friendly “Three Blind Mice” plays. It is joined by an irrefutably adorable ballet line of toddler dance students, which offsets the dancing danger with ooos and ahhs, but it’s still a strange departure musically.
Elsewhere, an electro-symphonic rendition of Cirque du Soleil’s “Alegria” is played where surely a more traditional accompaniment would have suited.
This isn’t to say that Battaglia – or any dance school that needs to adapt for their still-learning students – is without the right to make artistic changes. But it can’t go unasked: In this most disciplined, most classicist of performance arts, shouldn’t the divine ascension of student to masterpiece be climbed on the backs of those who wrote the rules?
It doesn’t tarnish this experience, and in fact it might likely be the smartest kind of transitional tool for young ballet novices out there, but it stands out as unnecessarily revisionist.
Then again, traditions like “The Nutracker” are meant to be followed, and in that vein, so too are they meant to be written. Battaglia’s company makes beautiful steps toward what is sure to be a tradition for not only her company but for the many young dancers and nutcrackers looking up from their seats in pure amazement.