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A Better Chestnut

San Jose Cleveland Ballet's 'Nutcracker' is a step ahead of the rest

By Philip Collins

It's December, and the Drosselmeyer family is once again dancing into the Christmas season compliments of the transcendent melodies of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Not a day goes by, it seems, on which you don't encounter some mention of or quote from the ballet's story or music.

Luckily, at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, at least one Nutcracker distinguished itself early on from the fray. San Jose Cleveland Ballet's recent (Dec. 3-7) revival of Dennis Nahat and the late Ian Horvath's 1979 adaptation of this beloved chestnut proved to be a sensorial extravaganza.

Nahat and Horvath's choreography and extensive editorializing of the original tableau and music added surprising turns to the expected, and the new staging included a dozen or so impressive technical ingenuities.

With glamour and wit abounding from scene to scene, it wasn't necessary to be a dance devotee to savor the production. And not only were one's eyes lavished by the spectacle--the San Jose Symphony's playing under the direction of conductor Pamela Martin (the ballet's newly appointed assistant music director) radiated a clarity and warmth from the pit that easily surmounted the hall's acoustic pale.

David Guthrie's newly elaborated sets and costumes have enjoyed numerous enhancements since last time I saw them several years ago, and they were already brilliant. Guthrie has exploited every opportunity of Nahat's travelogue approach to the second act, in which young Maria and Prince Alexis journey to four exotic lands. Striking color chemistries and contrasts in style made each visitation a visual treat unto itself.

Nahat's choreography offered innumerable highlights, though mostly by the soloists. While the ensemble numbers were dazzlingly conceived, their execution was uneven--and they paled in comparison to the finely wrought dancing by principals.

Karen Gabay's Maria and Raymond Rodriguez's double duty as the Nutcracker and Prince Alexis were stunningly performed. Gabay's and Rodriguez's individual excellence, as well as their composite elán, lent ongoing credibility and beauty to the story's meandering plot.

Gabay's centered grace and precision of gesture filled Maria's flamboyant dreaming with lifeblood. Upon Rodriguez's transformation from the Nutcracker to the Prince, Gabay bloomed into pure ecstasy, and the pas de deux that followed perfectly matched the blissful gallantry of Tchaikovsky's waltz setting. Rodriguez's Prince proved everything that young Maria could dream of, dashing and well-heeled, yet with a restraint befitting royalty. Rodriguez's form beautifully translated the Prince's surrender to Cupid, and his keen coordination to Gabay's acrobatic spins and leaps made the two dancers meld as one.

Ana Lobe made a late but dazzling appearance in the latter part of Act II as Tsarina Tatianna, the better half of Moscovy's royal couple. Peter Kozak's Nikolai gleamed in white apparel and smiling arrays of teeth, but he made a less than brilliant accomplice. In neither movement or demeanor did Kozak match the eloquence of Lobe's lyric maneuvers.

Mice on the Move

As for the mice, they've never been so disarming. Nahat added an adorable dimension to the battle scene by recruiting some 50 children from the School of San Jose Cleveland Ballet. With their toes tapping in steady synchronization, the mouse battalion added a motoric drive to the score that Tchaikovsky would surely approve of. Audiences that attended last Wednesday's opening performance or Sunday's matinee were treated to a rare appearance by Nahat himself as Godfather Drosselmeyer. Nahat filled the stage with flamboyance and a propensity for mugging that evoked kindliness--but not without some shadings of the macabre.

San Jose Cleveland Ballet's version of The Nutcracker is surely one of the most heartwarming Christmas spectacles around. It is grandly conceived and, by and large, magnificently realized. One only wishes that the company's ensemble dancing was more crisply carried out.

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