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Cracking Good Time

As much as it stays the same, Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley's 'Nutcracker' evolves

By Marianne Messina

YEAR AFTER YEAR of watching The Nutcracker, as 19th-century Europeans celebrate Christmas in a big family way, gives one pause to consider why we love this tradition. Part of it is the ability to anticipate something splendid and exciting, but from a predictable, familiar place. At a recent matinee performance of The Nutcracker, Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley started fanning the anticipation in the lobby before the show with the Nutcracker and other characters ambling through the crowd in full costume. With script, costumes and roles all set and well-rehearsed, even the youngest of Nutcracker veterans can say, "I know what's coming next," a luxury life rarely affords us.

At the show I attended, the Performing Arts Center was filled half with the very young, rustling and chittering in excitement. They dressed the part in their satin and velvet, their reds and greens—all the way to the red bows in girls' hair. Whispers went across the hall as they counted (and argued over) the number of mice creeping into Maria Tannenbaum's home at the stroke of midnight. They oohed at the falling snow and jumped or cried out when the Nutcracker explosively came alive.

If the choreography has enough depth—like Dennis Nahat's—the ballet's familiarity does not stand in the way of noticing different things every year. Last year, for example, the Nutcracker's awkward struggle with his crescent sword to overtake the agile usurper Mouse King caught my eye. This year, it was the determination of the mice minions (played by the miniature dancers of the Ballet San Jose School) as they succumbed to cannon, sword and size, only to rise again, jump the grenadiers' torsos and cling on like rats. As walls rise and stairs come away to reveal the giant Christmas Tree, which lights up at just the right moment, The Nutcracker creates the much-sought-after illusion that life is well machined. It makes the miracle moments channeled by us human life-forms stand out all the more: Patricia Perez's light-hearted flitting when, as Maria, she dances her joy in front of the enchanted wooden Nutcracker; Raymond Rodriquez as the Castilian King Filipe capturing a toreador's fearlessness and a flamenco dancer's proud machismo in only a few form-perfect leaps.

Between one Nutcracker and the next, our real lives may take radical turns of change or loss, but the fabric of this tradition offers a kind of communal soothing: yes, we can hold firm against the forces of time. In truth, it's never the same Nutcracker. This year, the Land of the Ivory Pagoda received a fortunate makeover from choreographer Ann Woo and the dancers of the Chinese Performing Artists of America (CPAA), thus taking advantage of a Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley/CPAA collaboration that will yield the upcoming project, Middle Kingdom. In the whirls and spirals and waves of a traditional ribbon dance, the three concubines create a blur of yellow merging into orange into turquoise into blue into purple by way of long airborne ribbons.

Even if Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley hadn't changed a single toe brush from last year and hadn't lost Shingo Yoshimoto or acquired Erena Ishii, it could never re-create the same Nutcracker. This year, the ensembles seemed a little looser, the Harem number less lithe, the Grand Pas de Deux (Maximo Califano as Tsar and Alexsandra Meijer as Tsarina) more risky and unsure (you could almost feel in your muscles Califano's height and the tenuous improbability of Meijer's fish dives). But also this year, the fog seemed more ethereal, the ballerina snowflakes more atmospheric, the orchestra lighter and tighter. What becomes apparent is that after the passing year, it's not really the same person who has returned to dream like Maria of a nutcracker prince that never dies.

The Nutcracker, a Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley production, plays Wednesday at 7:30pm (with a special, one-act version for small children at 1:30pm), Thursday at 1:30 and 7:30pm, Friday at 1:30pm and Sunday at 3pm 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 22-28, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 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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