REVIEW: American Ballet Theatre's “THE NUTCRACKER” — Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Updated: Mar 25

A Fantasy of a Young Girl Yearning for Womanhood

The moment a mouse peeked out of a stewpot in the kitchen of the Stahlbaum’s kitchen, I knew that American Ballet Theatre's version of “The Nutcracker” would keep me engaged all evening.


American Ballet Theatre presented their first production in 1976 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., choreographed by Mikhail Baryshnikov (“White Knights;” “Baryshnikov on Broadway”), one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th century.


But the world premiere of “The Nutcracker” was long before that — given by the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892, with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The libretto was adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's story called, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." Although that original production was not a total success, the 20-minute suite that Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was, propelling "The Nutcracker" into enormous popularity (especially since the late 1960s), and now performed all over the world by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season.


In Alexei Ratmansky’s new version of "The Nutcracker," currently being performed at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa from December 10th through 19th, American Ballet Theatre presents a superb production like no other, and is considered Southern California’s grandest production of the holiday season. Bringing a sparkling, snow-filled dreamlike journey with larger-than-life scenery, colorful costumes, magical toy soldiers, mischievous mice, and matchless dancing, it is guaranteed that you’ll either be dreaming of sugar plums later, or finding a high chair to climb on.



Co-Presented by the Center and ABT in now their sixth year of production, “The Nutcracker” features an international all-star cast with more than 100 performers and stellar performances from some of the world’s leading dancers. In September, ABT’s Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie announced the much anticipated principal casting for this season’s opening night (this past Friday, Dec. 10th), which included Hee Seo as Clara the Princess, and Cory Stearns as The Nutcracker Prince — both exquisite coryphées.


The story is familiar by now. The ballet is set on Christmas Eve, where the Stahlbaum kitchen is alive with activity as cooks and housekeepers bustle about preparing for the family’s annual holiday party. A nanny keeps a watchful eye on the children, Clara and Fritz. Once the tree and other preparations are done, everyone adjourns to the parlor to greet the guests. Clara turns back and is startled to see a tiny, defiant mouse ensconced under the table. Suddenly more mischievous mice appear and scurry about the kitchen looking for scraps of food.


The party swings into action, with swirling masses of kids and gifts and tipsy adults. Toys are given out to the children. Then, suddenly, as the owl-topped grandmother clock strikes eight, a mysterious figure enters the room. It is Drosselmeyer, a local councilman, magician, and Clara's godfather. He is also a talented toymaker who has brought with him more gifts for the children, including lifelike dolls who dance to the delight of all. After a while, he has them put away for safekeeping.


Clara and her brother Fritz are very sad to see the dolls being taken away, but Drosselmeyer has yet another toy for them: a wooden nutcracker carved in the shape of a little soldier, which the other children ignore. Clara immediately takes a liking to it, but Fritz accidentally breaks it. Clara is heartbroken, but Drosselmeyer fixes the nutcracker, much to everyone's relief.


During the night, Clara returns to the parlor to check on her beloved nutcracker. As she reaches the little bed it rests on, the clock strikes midnight and she looks up to see Drosselmeyer perched atop it.


Suddenly, an infestation of mice begin to fill the room and the Christmas tree begins to grow to dizzying heights. The nutcracker also grows to life size. In marches a battalion of toy soldiers and Clara finds herself at once in a battle between an army of gingerbread soldiers and the mice, led by their seven-headed king. The mice begin to eat the gingerbread soldiers, but with a little help from Clara, who tosses her shoe into the fray, the nutcracker slays the Mouse King.


The mice retreat and the nutcracker is transformed into a handsome young Prince. He leads Clara through the moonlit night to a pine forest, but when the children find themselves in the Land of Snow, it’s not a winter wonderland for them. It’s an adventure, now frightening, now freezing. The poetry of Mr. Ratmansky’s vision here is very striking: no Snowflakes were ever more ambiguous, more animated, and they have been given pouncing jumps, spinning arcs, and insistent gestures that make us feel we’re in the land of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Snow Queen.” As the beautiful snowflakes become icy, they become swirling masses of frosty dancers that drift, blow, and swirl. Then they become fierce and menacing, springing up, darting, chasing, and blocking Clara and the Prince, eventually numbing them into a deep, cold sleep.


Drosselmeyer, who seems to always be nearby, comes to the rescue and transports Clara and the Prince by sleigh to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, an otherworldly, enchanting land where colorful entertainers from foreign lands, Mother Ginger and her children, flowers, and bees entertain them with dream ballets and waltzes.


The entire act becomes a celebratory holiday diversion that, in E.T.A. Hoffman’s day would have been a celebration of exotic treats from Arabia, Spain, China, and Russia. Each of those countries are represented with strong displays of dance sets.


But then we see a grownup Princess Clara and her Nutcracker Prince (ABT principals Ms. Seo and Mr. Stearns), and they’re suddenly in love. Their grand pas de deux is alternately formal and informal, showing classically perfect dance shapes, arcs, gestures and steps that reveal their ideal qualities and perfect precision. During the course of their grand pas deux, they are married by the Sugar Plum Fairy, after which young Clara awakens and is disappointed to find both Princes have vanished. Drosselmeyer eases her anguish, however, by making her nutcracker gift return to her.


Alexei Ratmansky’s version is clearly a fairy tale dream sequence, the fantasy of a young teen girl yearning for womanhood. But, while there are at least fifty versions of The Nutcracker being performed worldwide, with slight variations in each, Ratmansky’s choreography, which ranges from mimed expressions to virtuosic leaps, turns, and rebounds, paired with Richard Hudson’s colorful costumes and sets, make Southern California’s production exclusively unique.


WITH: Joo Won Ahn; Aran Bell; Isabella Boylston; Skylar Brandt; Misty Copeland; Herman Cornejo; Thomas Forster; Gillian Murphy; Calvin Royal III; Hee Seo; Christine Shevchenko; Cory Stearns; Devon Teuscher; Cassandra Trenary; James Whiteside; Zhong-Jing Fang; Joseph Gorak; Blaine Hoven; Catherine Hurlin; Luciana Paris; Gabe Stone Shayer; Katherine Williams and Roman Zhurbin; Sierra Armstrong; Alexandra Basmagy; Leah Baylin; Lauren Bonfiglio; Kathryn Boren; Jacob Clerico; Zimmi Coker; Luigi Crispino; Jarod Curley; Claire Davison; Michael de la Nuez; Lea Fleytoux; Scout Forsythe; Patrick Frenette; April Giangeruso; Carlos Gonzalez; Breanne Granlund; Kiely Groenewegen; Sung Woo Han; Emily Hayes; Connor Holloway; Andril Ishchuk; Anabel Katsnelson; Kanon Kimura; Jonathan Klein; Erica Lall; Courtney Lavine; Melvin Lawovi; Virginia Lensi; Fangqi Li; Isadora Loyola; Duncan Lyle; Tyler Maloney; Joseph Markey; Abbey Marrison; Hannah Marshall; Betsy McBride; Cameron McCune; Duncan McIlwaine; Joao Menegussi; Chloe Misseldine; Stephanie Petersen; Garegin Pogossian; Lauren Post; Luis Ribagorda; Rachel Richardson; Javier Rivert; Jose Sebastian; Courtney Shealy; Kento Sumitani; Eric Tamm; Ingrid Thomas; Nathan Vendt; Remy Young; Jin Zhang; Cy Doherty; Teresa D’Ortone; Elwince Magbitang; SunMi Park; Andrew Robare; Yoon Jung Seo.


ABT’S THE NUTCRACKER, Performed Live by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra. Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie; Artist in Residence/Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky; Associate Artistic Director Clinton Luckett; Principal Conductor Charles Barker; Conductor David LaMarche; Regisseur Susan Jones; Principal Répétiteur Irina Kolpakova; Music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky; Set and Costume Design by Richard Hudson; Scenic Elements by Costume Armour Inc.; Drops by Michael Hagen Inc.; Associate Designers Justin Arienti and Mauricio Elorriaga; Lighting by Jennifer Tipton; Millinery by Lynne Mackey Studio, Jennifer Chapman and Marian Jean Hose; Wigs by Jeffrey Rebelo and Riva Pizhadze; Footwear by Pluma.


Performing December 10-19; Wed., Thur., Fri. at 7PM, Sat. at 2 and 7PM, Sun. at 12:30 and 5:30PM. Single tickets start at $30 and can be purchased online at SCFTA.org, at the Box Office, or by calling (714)755-0236.


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report