Equal Parts Sugar and Showy Performances in City Ballet’s Classic ‘Nutcracker’

Featuring virtuoso adults, such as Ariana Gonzalez as little Clara, City Ballet of San Diego’s The Nutcracker fills the Spreckels Theatre stage with impressive performers alongside adorable tots, mice, and soldiers.

Ariana Gonzalez as Rose in Waltz of the Flowers. She also dances the role of Clara in City Ballet's The Nutcracker. Photo: Courtesy CB

Ariana Gonzalez as Rose in Waltz of the Flowers. She also dances the role of Clara in City Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Photo: Courtesy CB

On view through Dec. 23, the production draws on Balanchine’s familiar version with a few edits. We join the Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve party with mom, dad, Clara and brother Fritz.

While it helps that she’s very petite, Gonzalez is a believable coming of age Clara because of youthful expressions and pantomime. Dance fans will appreciate her excellent technique and line. Three other women dance Clara in rotation: Karin Yamada, Erica Alvarado and Jessie Leigh Mowes. Watch for Clara joining the Mirlitons in solid footwork.

Like too many American parties, well-dressed neighbors (costumes David Heuvel) stop by and spend more time saying hello and goodnight than dancing. Rambunctious kids run and blow whistles.

North American audiences love this scene and the charming family narrative. Dance aficionados have to wait for Act II for the grand pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. I caught Erica Alvarado and Ryosuke Ogura on a Saturday night and found their chemistry and technique thrilling. Ogura has always been technically sound, but he is wonderfully animated and confident in this role. Ms. Gonzalez and Stephano Candeva rotate the role.

When it premiered in 1892, The Nutcracker wasn’t popular with Russian principal dancers. It wasn’t even tied to the Christmas Season. There are dozens of Nutcracker shows in the region, and most retain Balanchine’s setting and characters.

City’s rendition makes Herr Drosselmeyer a godfather with a bad wig and rainbow trimmed choir robe. Kids love him and don’t fear him, which can make parents squirm a bit. Kevin Engle has danced the mysterious role for years and deserves a suave long-tailed coat to go with his eye patch. He also plays Mother Gigogne (Ginger). Even with hyper kiddies under the giant skirt, he gave an almost sleepy turn the night I was there. If you’ve seen other Nutcrackers, you may wish for a wild drag queen, or not.

Okay, the tree and mice grow bigger and candies dance, but Nutcrackers vary. Brother Fritz breaks the nutcracker and that’s right out of Hoffman’s book, but don’t think too hard about the narrative. We meet sister Louisa, and she’s also one of the mechanical dancing dolls. A woman near me kept asking, “Who is that?” Missing from this production are hints of romance that leap into Act II.

Baby Mice tiptoe off stage during the Battle Scene. Image: Courtesy City Ballet

Baby Mice tiptoe off stage during the Battle Scene. Image: Courtesy City Ballet

In many productions Drosselmeier’s nephew sneaks into Clara’s love dream, but not here. We expect a Hollywood moment when the Nutcracker Prince pulls off his giant head and it’s a handsome guy we recognize. (One year it was her dad!) While that does not happen, Stephan Candeva is a dreamy Prince and steers Clara around on a flying sled.

Still, one can wish for City Ballet to shake things up in future productions. We cheer for bounding Cossaks, but what if this top tier company shifts the Chinese Tea and Arabian sections from hopping and undulating stereotypes to something artfully authentic?

For many youngsters, The Nutcracker is their first ballet experience. City’s production delivers a pretty and professional package, and there’s nothing better than dance performed to live music. You’ll hear and feel the Celesta, flutes, and strings. The City Ballet Orchestra performing Tchaikovsky’s sparkling score in the historic Spreckels is an unforgettable event. Spectacular new lighting adds brilliant pink and green colors to storybook sets and snow.

The Nutcracker continues through Dec. 23. www.cityballet.org.


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