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[whitespace] Karen Gabay Crackerjack Nutcracker: Karen Gabay dances up a fantasy in 'The Nutcracker.'

Dream Weaver

Dennis Nahat brings the toys to life in San Jose Cleveland Ballet's 'Nutcracker'

By Scott MacClelland

IF YOU THOUGHT The Nutcracker was only for little kids, think again. The sellout Sunday matinee of the San Jose Cleveland Ballet's annual production found nearly twice as many "big kids" as little, laughing at the gags, gasping at the scenic impact and cheering the terpsichore.

Packing them in at the Center for the Performing Arts was no small feat, given the holiday parade that all but strangled traffic downtown. Once under way, however, the afternoon flew by, with choreographer and company artistic director Dennis Nahat as the gift-giving dream weaver, Drosselmeyer.

Nahat is perhaps at his best in using dance to tell stories. His vocabulary of gestures and facial expressions makes narrative come alive (witness his recent Midsummer Night's Dream), and the first act of his Nutcracker, laid out in three parts, tells a tale not just of Christmas with the Tannenbaums, but of Nahat's choreographic range.

This Nutcracker opens with a parade of festively attired citizens on their way to a party and passing a sidewalk children's choir. The scene changes into the Tannenbaum home, where the guests are greeted warmly, the children play and, at last, a large box is rolled in.

With a flash of light, out pops Drosselmeyer, who then goes about the task of distributing gifts to one and all. As the adults retire for dinner, the children remain, the boys taking exquisite glee in teasing and tormenting the girls. Drosselmeyer intercedes, especially to repair and protect the nutcracker, his gift to the totally smitten Maria.

All of this is presented in a literal narrative style. But when Maria returns to the now darkened living room to take the nutcracker from the mantle and curl up in a chair to sleep and dream, Nahat's real magic begins. Mice appear from behind corners and scurry across the floor, the nutcracker takes on human size and the mouse king enters to do battle.

Maria alternately hides for protection behind her nutcracker prince and takes his part in the ensuing combat, which now involves legions of the mouse king's subjects (the children of the company's ballet school) and ranks of nutcracker soldiers. The scene, titled "A Curious Combat," was arguably the highlight of the day. In combining narrative, action, and a fanciful choreographic invention, it proved the mostly wholly original moment in the production. It would be Maria's task to dispatch the mouse king and save her prince with a single stroke of the scimitar. Quickly the mood, style and character change for the shimmering snowstorm that concludes the first act.

Act II, Nahat's "Magical Journey to Muscovy," abandons narrative in favor of choreographic display, colorful costumes and, of course, some of Tchaikovsky's most exotic and vivacious music in an edition that includes most of the composer's Capriccio Italien and the polonaise from Eugene Onegin.

THE ORCHESTRA delivered its goods with verve under the direction of Pamela Martin, who gave sensitive attention to Maria Jacobs and Bat-Erdene Udval in their virtuoso solos and duets just ahead of the Grand Ball finale. Karen Gabay, celebrating her 20th season with the company, combined smoothly seasoned technique, girlish adolescence and vivid personality as Maria.

Her prince, with excellent technical range, was Raymond Rodriguez. The mouse king, Daniel Gwatkin, underscored his part with physical intensity. By design, Nahat gave solo opportunities to many more in his company and played the big corps numbers to the hilt.

He created one of many memorable moments when, alone onstage, the nutcracker prince teaches Maria how to dance the waltz, and when that introduction turns into the Waltz of the Flowers, the curtain explodes open on a ballroom full of dancing couples.

The Nutcracker, by San Jose Cleveland Ballet, plays Thursday-Friday (Dec 9-10) at 7:30pm and Saturday-Sunday (Dec. 11-12) at 1:30 and 7:30pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $18-$60. (408.288.2800)

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From the December 9-15, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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