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Hello, fashion runway Nutcracker
Does the new physical production of Pennsylvania Ballet’s The Nutcracker live up to its $850,000 buzz? A resounding yes.
The Academy of Music curtain comes up on a Fabergé Christmas exhibit instead of that dusty old Hallmark card. The next things that hits you is Judanna Lynn’s ballet couture— as glittering a display of 19th-Century eveningwear as you’ll find in any ’30s MGM period drama. And the closer you looked on this runway, the better things got.
Lynn’s character outfits are more sophisticated and highlighted with cultural or fantasy detail. The ranks of those amorphous lumpy mice of old have been replaced by a scarier cheese epauletted, armor-jacketed, Conquistador helmeted vermin. The pale rhubarb petal layered skirts of the Dewdrop Flowers were in unabashedly Flo Ziegfeld bloom. I loved the claret-bejeweled velvet evening dresses, right out of the Imperial Ballet, worked with ease by principal Riolama Lorenzo. With only one noticeable exception, Lynn’s 85 new costumes were both theatrically vibrant and dance functional.
A too-boxy bodice
That one fashion faux pas was Amy Aldridge’s first Sugarplum Fairy costume. The bodice is too boxy and the skirt too animated. Together they give Aldridge an emaciated look and detract from her performance. No such problems ensue when she changes to a shimmering classic white prima ballerina tutu for her central pas de deux with James Ady, her most attendant suitor (in bone-white Cavalier breastplate). There are so many points where this demanding pas de deux can bust apart. Aldridge drew applause for her powerfully centered pirouettes. And she leapt onto Ady's shoulder so effortlessly. Even with momentary arabesque tremors, this pair’s chemistry is palpable throughout.
Peter Horne’s sets, scrims and drops are just as vivid. His Nutcracker house is a sleek breakaway fantasia, sure to capture the imaginations of even children weaned on hi-definition movie effects. Horne’s moonlit solarium is the dazzling magical frame for the engorged Tannenbaum, and his Land of the Sweets is an iced backdrop that’s not (for once) on sugar overload. The rendering of a 19th-Century East Falls snowscape for the Snowflakes scene is ecologically heartbreaking.
Dancers: The highlights
Speaking of those Snowflakes— otherwise known as the women’s corps de ballet— they’re absolutely glittering this year. Unison was tight, jumps were light and the pacing was first-rate.
The designs may be the stars this year, but they’re still supporting George Balanchine’s choreography. The new costumes draw the eye closer to the performances, and maybe in themselves inspire a more tightly danced production. Johnathan Stiles continues his march as one of the best character dancers in the company with his snappy duty as the Toy Soldier. Jermel Johnson’s GQ Candy Cane cutaway tails kept popping as he jumped through his hoop, and he was swellegant during his huge lateral splits. Martha Chamberlain proved a diamond-cut Dewdrop, her airy phrasing as polished as the cabochon sparkling off her tiara. Gabriella Yudenich completely smoked the Arabian “Coffee” solo in sheer ice green and blue harem ensemble. Harley Rowe and James Ihde, heading the “Chocolates” dance, were unfussy in their tarantella gear.
A great kids’ corps de ballet this year was led by Alessandra Mullin as the Little Princess and Austin Butler as the Little Prince. Of course, in the end the night belonged to those fabulous Angels, in drop-dead gold winged ensembles and Balanchine formation.
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