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


The holiday season is supposed to be a time to count your blessings and be generous to others. For holiday fare, New Yorkers have “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” imperishable and unsurpassable for decades, danced every year by New York City Ballet. And, since 2015, American Ballet Theatre has faithfully presented Alexei Ratmansky’s version of “The Nutcracker” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts creating a new adaptation of this annual holiday engagement, thrilling California audiences with even more delightful moments of fantasy, magic, and bubbling imagery. The production will be dominating the Christmas season in Costa Mesa until December 17th. And it is ravishingly beautiful.


Originally written by E.T.A. Hoffmann — he was a champion of the imagination run wild. Inanimate things typically come to life in many of Hoffmann's stories. One of Hoffmann's stories was adapted by the French writer Alexandre Dumas. It is the tale of a little girl, Marie (the original name in the novel), and her Christmas toys. Hoffmann's title for it was "Nutcracker and Mouse King." But in 1892, a team of Russians turned Dumas' version into a ballet. The Nutcracker did not enjoy great success at first, but the music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky eventually did. And its staging has become a Christmas season ritual, sugar plums and all.


The Company in American Ballet Theater's "The Nutcracker," Now Playing at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. "The Snow."

But something happened to Hoffmann's story in this progression from dark to light. There have been a number of versions, some scarier than others. But in Ratmansky’s version, Marie became Clara, and her flights of imagination became sweeter and more tame.

Yes, this “Nutcracker” is very special. And what is most special about it is its choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky. This is a “Nutcracker” that attends to every measure and nuance of Tchaikovsky’s great score. The steps, the characterizations, the comic gags: Whether or not you approve of each one of Mr. Ratmansky’s choices, all of them arise from and are justified by the music. With surprise and heart-catching emotion, you feel that Mr. Ratmansky’s visions were in the Tchaikovsky all along.


That’s especially true in the first act. The opening kitchen scene, which introduces the brilliant invention of the mischievous Little Mouse, is so perfectly attuned, you might wonder why all “Nutcracker” stagings don’t have it. The way the children in the party scene rush on like a mob, or a swirling storm: It’s in the score.

Roman Zhurbin in American Ballet Theater's "The Nutcracker," Now Playing at Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Here is a ballet in which the children behave like children, scampering up and around, eating the party food before the guests arrive, transitioning from bratty jumps to limpid formations that wend their way around the Stahlbaum’s living room. The children’s behavior is also indicative of the production’s balance between naturalism and caricature. The little solo that the Grandmother indulges in after the formal adult dance: The coda calls for something just like that.


The Stahlbaum party grows even more festive as Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeyer, magically appears. A skilled toymaker always full of the most inventive surprises, Drosselmeyer entertains everyone as he presents four life-sized dolls.  However, these dolls cannot be played with, and Clara is disappointed. Then, Drosselmeyer gives Clara a unique Nutcracker handsomely dressed as a soldier. Brother Fritz becomes jealous and rushes at her, snatching the Nutcracker from her and breaking it. A heartbroken Clara looks on as Drosselmeyer repairs the Nutcracker. Then, as the evening grows late, the guests depart and the family retires for a long winter night’s rest.


It is the end of this first act, however, that we see the production’s great power. During the night, a sleepy Clara tiptoes back down the staircase in search of her beloved Nutcracker.  As the clock strikes midnight, Clara sees Drosselmeyer’s face on the clock and becomes distressed by mice scampering into the room from all sides. The Nutcracker tries to help her but is carried away by the mice. Drosselmeyer appears just in time to catch Clara as she faints from fright.

Katrina Carney and Carson Triplett and Company in American Ballet Theater's "The Nutcracker," Now Playing at Segerstrom Center for the Arts

As she recovers, Clara sees her house change all around her. The Christmas tree grows large and wondrous. And Clara is placed high above the action in a large chair in an incredible multidimensional aspect to the enactment. The Nutcracker heroically summons the toy soldiers to help fend off the scurrying mice, and the fierce Mouse King arrives and engages in a duel with the Nutcracker. 


Just as it seems the evil Mouse King may be victorious, Clara takes off her shoe and bravely throws it at him, aiding the Nutcracker in casting a fatal blow. As the mice quickly retreat, the Nutcracker transforms into a young Prince, and the slightly strange poetry of this moment of realization is amplified as Clara and the Nutcracker boy share the stage with their adult avatars. As the children emerge from the skirmish with the rats, the princely couple enters from upstage left.


At first, the two couples trace the same steps; then the adult dancers peel away to dance a virtuoso pas de deux, full of spinning jumps, swooping catches, and a spiraling lift over the cavalier’s shoulder. But the adult couple also shares child-like moments, as if the children lived on inside of them. They seem to represent how the children imagine themselves, in the future. The image is deeply poetic. The snowflakes that finish the act are extraordinary: beautiful yet icicle sharp, menacing with the chill of death. Their danger raises shivers of intermingled fear and excitement on the cusp of adulthood.


Isabella Boylston in American Ballet Theater's "The Nutcracker," Now Playing at Segerstrom Center for the Arts

In Act II’s Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Sugar Plum Fairy commands there be a festival in honor of Clara, featuring charming dances from around the world performed with abundant dance invention. As the celebration draws to a close, Clara receives her greatest Christmas wish and sees herself transformed into a beautiful Princess to dance in the arms of her Nutcracker Prince.


Epilogue, Christmas morning:  As the magic night swirls around Clara, she suddenly finds herself back home, on that very same sofa with the nutcracker doll in her arms, wondering if her incredible adventure had just been - a dream!? Or was it the magic of Christmas, come to life?


Why not find out for yourself!  It’s a magical moment, magical and fleeting, SoCal-ers, so catch it while you can!


SEGERSTROM CENTER FOR THE ARTS PRESENTS, American Ballet Theatre's THE NUTCRACKER, With Pacific Symphony; Music by Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky; Performing December 8–17, 2023; Wednesday, Thursday, & Fridays at 7 pm; Saturdays at 2 & 7 pm; Sundays at 12:30 & 5:30 pm. Run Time: approximately 1 hour, 52 minutes. Clinton Luckett Associate Artistic Director; Ormsby Wilkins Music Director; Charles Barker Principal Conductor; David LaMarche Conductor; Orchestra Pacific Symphony; Regisseur Susan Jones; Principal Répétiteur Irina Kolpakova; Directors of Repertoire John Gardner · Carlos Lopez · Amanda McKerrow · Nancy Raffa. Technical Director Richard Koch; Lighting Director Brad Fields; Production Stage Manager Danielle Ventimiglia; Stage Manager Luke H. Woods; Property Master Paul Wells; Wardrobe Supervisor Tomoko Ueda-Dunbar; Wig and Makeup Supervisor Rena Most; Resident Scenic Artist Christine Skubish.


Featuring: Friday, December 8 at 7 p.m. – Devon Teuscher, Joo Won Ahn; Saturday, December 9 at 2 p.m. – Hee Seo, Daniel Camargo; Saturday, December 9 at 7 p.m. – Catherine Hurlin, Aran Bell; Sunday, December 10 at 12:30 p.m. – Skylar Brandt, Herman Cornejo; Sunday, December 10 at 5:30 p.m. – Hee Seo, Daniel Camargo 

Wednesday, December 13 at 7 p.m. – Christine Shevchenko, Thomas Forster; Thursday, December 14 at 7 p.m. – Isabella Boylston, James Whiteside; Friday, December 15 at 7 p.m. – Cassandra Trenary, Calvin Royal lll; Saturday, December 16 at 2 p.m. – SunMi Park, Cory Stearns; Saturday, December 16 at 7 p.m. – Devon Teuscher, Joo Won Ahn; Sunday, December 17 at 12:30 p.m. – Catherine Hurlin, Aran Bell; Sunday, December 17 at 5:30 p.m. – Skylar Brandt, Herman Cornejo.




Alexei Agoudine · Nastia Alexandrova · Sierra Armstrong · Alexandra Basmagy · Leah Baylin · Elisabeth Beyer · Lauren Bonfiglio · Tristan Brosnan · Jacob Clerico · Zimmi Coker · Luigi Crispino · Jarod Curley · Claire Davison · Michael de la Nuez · Cy Doherty · Teresa D’Ortone · Camila Ferrera · Léa Fleytoux · Scout Forsythe · Patrick Frenette · Tillie Glatz · Carlos Gonzalez · Kiely Groenewegen · Emily Hayes · Andrii Ishchuk · Anabel Katsnelson · Kanon Kimura · Jonathan Klein · Erica Lall (2023 Jennifer Alexander Dancer) · Courtney Lavine · Melvin Lawovi · Virginia Lensi · Fangqi Li · Isadora Loyola · Duncan Lyle · Elwince Magbitang · Tyler Maloney · Joseph Markey · Abbey Marrison · Hannah Marshall · Cameron McCune · Duncan McIlwaine · João Menegussi · Garegin Pogossian · Lauren Post · Luis Ribagorda · Rachel Richardson · Andrew Robare · Jake Roxander · Jose Sebastian · Yoon Jung Seo · Courtney Shealy · Kento Sumitani · Eric Tamm · Ingrid Thoms · Olivia Tweedy · Nathan Vendt · Aleisha Walker · Paulina Waski · Kotomi Yamada · Remy Young


ApprenticesMadison Brown · Finnian Carmeci · Kyra Coco · Taku  · Sylvie Squires · Alejandro Valera Outlaw.


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