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Photograph by Robert Shonler

Rodent Royalty: Willie Anderson plays the Mouse King in Dennis Nahat's take on 'The Nutcracker.'

Opening Up 'The Nut'

Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley works wonders with the seasonal classic

By Marianne Messina

DON'T FEEL BAD if you've seen The Nutcracker many times already and still don't know the story line. By the time E.T.A. Hoffman's popular tale made it to Russia for its ballet incarnation in 1892, Hoffman would barely have recognized it himself. Moreover, few of the story elements have remained consistent throughout the ballet's century-plus of productions. For Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley's Nutcracker, artistic director Dennis Nahat has dispensed with the candy coating (the Sugar Plum Fairy and the idea of representing countries as consumables) and brought back international potentates.

As for the sketchy, oft-mutated story, Nahat is careful to lay out his version clearly by giving Godfather Drosselmeyer a talking part, delivered from the proscenium before the curtain goes up. Nahat as Drosselmeyer, tells the audience, in confidential manner, that the legitimate Prince of Muscovy is opposed by the "wicked King of Mice," who "gave him a nasty bite. What happened? He turned into a Nutcracker--stiff like wood." And now the prince needs the love of a young girl to break the spell.

This production seems more coherent than many, with the second act trimmed of extraneous characters like Mother Ginger. And having the prince (Stephane Dalle, part of a large rotating cast of principals) reunite with his parents, Tsar Nikolai (Ivan Bielik) and Tsarina Tatianna (Alexsandra Meijer), adds a touch of closure. In place of the Sugar Plum, it's the tsarina who dances to Tchaikovsky's celestial music, and it's the royal Russian couple who dance the grand pas de deux.

Since The Nutcracker is about color and spectacle as much as dance, San Jose's production does not spare the color palette. In Act 1, the fashion of upper-class Victorians comes in crisp greens and vivid blues, while the lush palette of burgundy to mauve to rose in the Tannenbaum home is woven into successive scenes to form a neat internal symbolism. The conspicuous purple of Godfather Drosselmeyer's vest is next seen on the usurping Mouse King's sash and again in swashes of purple in the live mice's coat tails.

In terms of spectacle, there are explosions, fog, snow, breathtaking set changes and more sparkle one might find at a rave (every nobleman in the waltz scenes wears a diamond broach). The puppet mice that infest at midnight are creepy, and their comical exit relies on state-of-the-art stage-mouse technology: the costumed radio-controlled car.

For adults, The Nutcracker can be both splendid and somber. And even if for those who know nothing about ballet, the right performance by a dancer, be it precise, powerful or heartfelt, can hit the subconscious and send the mind's eye in both directions. This show had its share of right performances: The tortured death pose of the Mouse King (Willie Anderson), his frozen twiglike claws grasping at air, comical and macabre at once; Karen Gabay's exuberant toe work as the gleeful Maria; the flawless timing and execution of pink-clad ballerinas combined with Nahat's clever choreography to create flowers opening one after another like a sort of time-lapse series--you can see them bloom, even without knowing that the dance is called "Waltz of the Flowers." And as Tsarina Tatiana, Meijer made an exit that was so bittersweet in its delicate control, you couldn't help flashing all at once on the days when the ideal woman was as controlled and fragile as a china doll--and on the fate of the Russian nobility, decimated just a generation after they were so gaily celebrated in The Nutcracker's waltz, and on the precarious balance between beloved tradition and hopeful change.

The Nutcracker, a Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley production, plays Dec. 16 at 4pm, Dec. 18-19 at 7:30pm, Dec. 20-22 at 1:30pm and 7:30pm, Dec. 23 at 4pm, Dec. 26 at 7:30pm, Dec. 27 at 1:30 and 7:30pm and Dec. 28 at 1:30pm at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $22-$68. (408.288.2800)

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From the December 18-24, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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