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December 21-27, 2005

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Fancy Dress: The grand ball from Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley's 'Nutcracker' features Karen Gabay and Stephane Dalle (right).

'The Nutcracker,' a Long View

Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley's holiday classic looks brand-new from a distance

By Marianne Messina

THIS YEAR, I learned that seeing Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley's Nutcracker from the back of the Center for the Performing Arts is a whole different experience than seeing it from where the press sits (when they arrive on time). It's surprisingly illuminating. Sure, the Christmas toy tall ship is not as detailed, and the red, wooden nutcracker appears almost faceless, and the room acoustics take advantage of distance to accentuate the orchestra's perennially unruly horn section.

But the trade-off is a kind of widescreen beauty of overall textures. For example, in the menacing march of mice, compliments of the Ballet San Jose School, the obvious clash of textures startles, the way the sudden movement of a snake might. Sitting in close, the awareness that the mice are cute little kids obscures the symbolism of mice as disrupters of order. From afar, it's form meets frenzy. These hunched-over plushies, ubiquitous and quick with their wiry limbs and tails, their scratching, frantic hands, seem to pose a serious threat to the slower, heavier, larger (wooden) nutcracker soldiers.

Also from a distance, the noisy and fractious Tannenbaum boys, the flitting girls, the gracious host (Daniel Gwatkin) and hostess (Beth Ann Namey), the charismatic Drosselmeyer (artistic director Dennis Nahat), all compose an inspiring human tapestry, documenting the world order that Tchaikovsky suggests in his music. The servants get the oom-pah-pah of barrooms and burlesque, while the adult gentlefolk dance with their toasts to stately music. The reigning principle is good form, as when Ramon Moreno's prince instructs Maria (Maria Jacobs) in an elaborate ceremonial bow. (Moreno improvised an enjoyable save this opening night, as "Prince Alexis" disposed of some accidental stage debris.)

In Maria's dream (Act 2), the wooden nutcracker comes alive as Russian Prince Alexis, and he takes the young Maria Tannenbaum on a journey to his homeland in a snow-bird carriage that floats on rolling fog. On the way, they pass through exotic lands and visit their potentates. From a long view, the striking synergy of lines and colors in the elements makes it easy to see why Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley's costuming and staging (by the late David Guthrie) has delighted audiences so consistently for more than 20 years.

At the Great Gates of Castille, the crisp reds, oranges, blacks of the costumes continue on to the gates in more muted tones and are then drawn up into the color gradient of the sky, where the orange-red of a setting sun blends into the gray of twilight. Likewise, as you take in the sparkling pale-pink gowns and black tuxedos of the waltz at the Russian palace, the bright spot-lit dance floor grows more subdued as the eye climbs to the candle chandeliers (Kenneth Keith, lighting).

Playing the Russian royals in their glinting white, Stephane Dalle and Karen Gabay make Nahat's fabulously difficult series of lifts (Dalle holding Gabay in a dive under one arm, or on his shoulder) look not only easy but magical. No matter how many pirouettes or how high the lift coming up, Gabay appears truly regal, never rushed or anxious.

Other great moments (apart from impressive explosions) include Alexsandra Meijer literally pouring into her Harem Lady role in the Land of the Shifting Sands as if at any moment she might spill out of human shape altogether. And Maria Jacobs is an amazingly light Maria. Her fluttering feet and feathery body seem to operate in a slightly different time zone—as if she's a mythical princess who dreams of being a girl.

The Nutcracker, presented by Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, plays Wednesday-Friday at 1:30 and 7:30pm and Saturday at 1:30pm through Dec. 24 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $25-$74. (408.288.2800)

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