Dance Review: Alberta Ballet's The Nutcracker is a stunning visual treat with solid dancing

 Photo credit: Yin Yi

Photo credit: Yin Yi

The Nutcracker ballet is one of the most iconic holiday events. And as wonderful as Ballet BC is, the company simply doesn’t have the budget, resources or enough company dancers to stage this classic. While Goh Ballet’s annual production is extravagant and wonderful, Goh Ballet isn’t a real company – it’s a ballet school that invites professional dancers to participate. That’s why it’s so terrific to have professional companies such as Alberta Ballet bring their full-scale professional productions to Vancouver. And Alberta Ballet’s production, which is currently gracing the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre is fantastic!

What makes this production so outstanding? Artistic Director Grand-Maître's concept is one of grand opulence – it’s a production where the sets, costumes and lighting are as thrilling as the dancing itself. Set in Russia at the turn of the 19th century, the breathtaking visuals, thanks to set and costume designer Zach Brown and lighting designer Pierre Lavoie, take us from a wintery neighbourhood street, the majestic drawing room of Klara’s home, and the elegant Sugar Plum Fairy palace.

 Photo credit: Paul McGrath

Photo credit: Paul McGrath

One of the highlights of the show is when Klara’s grandfather, Drosselmeyer, shrinks Klara and himself and enter Karl’s (otherwise known as the Nutcracker Prince) world. We literally see the sets, including the Christmas tree, grow to give the illusion that Klara and Drosselmeyer are shrinking. The two eventually step into a beautiful winter setting complete with magnificent wolves pulling the Snow Tsarina in her sleigh. The costuming of the wolves, played on opening night by Christopher Scruggs and Zacharie Dun, is one of the most beautiful concepts I’ve ever seen.

 Photo credit: Paul McGrath

Photo credit: Paul McGrath

Edmund Stripe’s choreography is first-rate. He has incorporated over-the-top theatrical miming elements for the characters to communicate to each other with. This helps the audience figure out what’s happening in place of spoken dialogue, especially during the first part of the show, before the major dancing really begins. The playful choreography of the children in the party scene and the traditional social dancing among the parents is very appropriate for the story.

 Photo credit: Paul McGrath

Photo credit: Paul McGrath

There’s a lot of fun to be had later in the first act, when twelve young dancers (the show features over 60 local children) populate the stage, portraying mice and threatening Klara. Once Klara and Dosselmeyer enter Karl’s world, we see a delightfully entertaining battle between the Nutcracker and his soldiers, with the Rat Tsar and his minions.

 Photo credit: Paul McGrath

Photo credit: Paul McGrath

Once that ends, the real dancing begins. Stripe’s choreography highlights the accents and shades of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s beloved score. Striple’s choreography is true to the style of the music and show, featuring aesthetically pleasing classical ballet, showing off clean lines, extension and leaps. There is some wonderful partnering work between Karl and Klara. The Snowflakes dance is exquisite, with the lovely dancers surrounded by falling snow, and majestic scenery and costumes. The second act features a nice variety of dance styles from different cultures (Ukraine, Chinese, Arabian and Russian). My favourite, being the very sexy and athletically impressive Arabian section.

 Photo credit: Paul McGrath

Photo credit: Paul McGrath

On opening night, John Canfield was phenomenal as Karl (aka the Nutcracker Prince). His technique was outstanding and his performance was radiant. Canfield’s leaps were sky-high, his lines were gorgeous and his charming, playful expression was a delight to watch. Hayna Gutierrez was also excellent as the Sugar Plum Fairy, showcasing soft, pleasing lines underscored by impressive strength. Her fouette section was spot on, and every aspect of her dancing – her feet, pointe work, timing, extension, leaps and performance was prima ballerina gold standard.

One of the highlights of every Nutcracker production is the duet between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. On opening night, Garrett Groat played the Cavalier. I’ve watched Groat perform for many years and can attest that he is an outstanding dancer. Last night however, it was evident that there was something askew with Groat. Perhaps he was ill, injured or tired.

From the moment Groat appeared onstage, he didn’t seem his usual vibrant self. But he dug deep and solidly supported Gutierrez for the pas de deux. Like the true ballet principal that he is, he somehow mustered all the strength he had. The lifts were first-rate, including the famous overhead fish lift near the end, and all the partnering elements (pirouettes, promenades, etc.) were solid. Most of all, the chemistry between Gutierrez was gorgeous.

While he used up most of his energy for the pas de deux, Groat managed to hold it together to successfully complete the rest of his partnering and solo elements, but obviously without his usual zing.

 Hayna Gutierrez and Garrett Groat. Photo credit: Yin Yi

Hayna Gutierrez and Garrett Groat. Photo credit: Yin Yi

As Klara, Alexandra Gibson was sparkling. She had a great smile and radiant stage presence for the entire show. Her pointe work is quite impressive, always fully going over blochs. And there was great energy between her and Canfield. My only criticism is that while her pirouettes on her own are fine, she seems to somehow throw her balance off when doing partnering pirouettes. I believe that every time I saw her do a pirouette with Canfield, her weight was off, often too far back, and Canfield had to make some quick adjustments to save the element.

Reilly McKinlay sparkled as the Snow Tsarina. Dressed in a long, gorgeous dress, the role of the Snow Tsarina is all about stage presence and grace, since she can’t really do a lot of dancing in the costume. And McKinlay, with her radiant smile and elegant gestures was divine. As Drosselmeyer, Eli Barnes was deliciously mysterious, down to his cartoonish steps across the stage when he enters Klara’s home.

The Arabian section was done very well, thanks to Heather Thomas, Kelley McKinlay and Jason Cao. Thomas demonstrated fabulous flexibility and core strength, supported by her strong partners. Not only was the partnering first-rate, but the sensuality and exoticness of the piece was well interpreted by the trio.

 The Arabian section. Photo credit: Paul McGrath

The Arabian section. Photo credit: Paul McGrath

Spanish was only semi-satisfying. Jennifer Gibson was great, but her partner Jared Ebell lacked performance quality. Sayuri Nakanii and Alan Ma were cute and also showcased great technique and finesse in the Chinese section. The Russian section was a bit disappointing. Hikaru Osakabe did a pleasant job, but could have expressed far more energy and “wow” factor. His fellow Russian dancer, Christopher Scruggs, was fine technically but definitely lacked facial expression and “wow” factor, which is quite essential for this dance.

The Waltz of the Flowers ensemble section was nice – but not fantastic. As a whole, the female corps did well – they all had nice technique and lines – but not all of them really performed to their fullest. The performance level was even lower among the male dancers. Perhaps the dancers were being cautious, since they were adjusting to the spacing on a new stage. Or perhaps they were tired after a lengthy run and tour of the show. Whatever the case may be, there wasn’t the usual overall sparkle to this section that I’ve seen in previous years when I watched the show at home in Calgary.

 The Waltz of the Flowers. Photo credit: Yin Yi

The Waltz of the Flowers. Photo credit: Yin Yi

However, the production as a whole is excellent and this version still remains one of my favourite. The visuals are stunning, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra played fantastically, and the performance level on the whole is solid. Thank you to Alberta Ballet for bringing its celebrated production of The Nutcracker to Vancouver, and thanks to Ballet BC for inviting the company to do so.

Ballet BC presents Alberta Ballet's The Nutcracker at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, running until December 30. For more information and tickets, visit Ballet BC's website