Beyond Balanchine

How do three popular Philly versions of The Nutcracker compare?

6 minute read
Baca, with arms spread, supports Dolan’s body as she swoops in a downward curve, a knee around his waist. They wear white.
Set like a jewel at the Academy of Music: Sterling Baca and Sydney Dolan in Philadelphia Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker.’ (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)

Nutcrackers pack the December dance calendar in Philly. Tap dance, contemporary, and ballet companies riff on A.T.E. Hoffman’s 1816 novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, whether it’s set to Tchaikovsky or Duke Ellington, choreographed for the corps de ballet or just one man. I wanted to compare them, so I made my way to three different performances.

Philadelphia Ballet’s version, by George Balanchine, has been a local tradition since 1968. More recently, the Rock School for Dance Education’s Classic Nutcracker, a version by president and director Peter Stark, and the Chocolate Ballerina Company’s Nutcracker Dipped in Chocolate have joined the holiday landscape.

The three ballets draw on the Petipa/Ivanov choreography created for St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1892. At a Christmas party, the mysterious Drosselmeyer gives Clara (or Marie—the name deserves an essay of its own!) a nutcracker doll that comes to life in her dream. He fights giant mice and accompanies Clara on a magical journey to the land of sweets. Choreographers have adapted the work to meet the demands of their companies and their audiences, but it remains a strangely disjointed combination of ballet realism in Act 1, set in a wealthy family home with its fireplace and tree, its social dances and broken toys, and the other-worldly fantasy of Act 2. Fortunately, audiences willingly overlook the questionable storytelling for the glorious music and the dancing.

The Philadelphia Ballet classic

The Philadelphia Ballet’s Nutcracker is set like a jewel in its gilded-age treasure of a theater, the Academy of Music, but the proof is in the dancing. The corps is suitably stately in the social dances, and Isabella DeBiasio and Cyair Stephens are lovely as the child Marie and Drosselmeyer’s nephew, respectively. Nicholas Patterson, as the soldier doll in the party divertissements, is a standout, leaping high in the air, his movement sharp as a sword. But Ethan Ross, as Marie’s naughty brother Fritz, steals the show. He has a child’s sly glee at his bad behavior that pulls all the attention in the room, and he is loving it.

Young dancers sit around a girl in a frilly dress, gleefully holding a nutcracker doll, all in front of a huge Christmas tree
Yuval Cohen and artists of Philadelphia Ballet with Cyair Stephens, Isabella DeBiasio, and students of the School of Philadelphia Ballet in George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker.' (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)

I’ve never liked Peter Horne’s scenic design of Act 2, which seems flimsy, but the dancing is always spectacular. Of the corps work this year, the dance of the flowers, with Mayara Pineiro as Dewdrop, took my breath away, the movement both precise and fluid, like a dream. Sydney Dolan and Sterling Baca as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier make the many lifts of the grand pas look effortless. Baca seems more reserved than usual, but he remains one of my favorites for his strong partnering, and Dolan’s grace enhances the illusion of flight. She looks like she is floating in the air.

In the past, opening night attracted the glitterati. Now the company has turned that around, selling opening-night tickets for $10, first come first served for the best seats. So there were lots of children in their finery and a good mix of regulars and newcomers in the audience. The dancers gave a big-ticket performance and the women in the seats behind me, who had never seen a ballet before, were dazzled. I expect they’ll be back next year. (This year’s show runs through Saturday, December 30.)

A Rock School recital

The Rock School has been training ballet dancers for 60 years, so their Classic Nutcracker at the Miller Theater (December 15-17, 2023) serves as a student recital for family and friends, and also as a place where rising dancers can get a little polish in key roles and be seen for their professional futures. Stark’s version, reimagined from his own earlier choreography, served its multiple audiences well. As Clara, Maria Lopez Saldaña danced on pointe, and she joined the parents for the social dance, with Caelan Gagnon as Drosselmeyer’s apprentice (in front of the traditionally elegant fireplace). So we see her as a young teen, not quite ready to let go of her toys but with a budding romantic heart. It’s a modern revision, so Clara gets to slay the mouse king and save her Nutcracker prince. We all cheered!

Two teen dancers, the girl posing on pointe with arms & leg extended, the boy with hands at her waist.
The future of ballet: Jasmine Wong as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nikita Malaki as Cavalier in the Rock School’s 2023 ‘Nutcracker’. (Photo by Cat Park.)

Stark offered us some lovely pas de deux tailored to the skills of the students, including a snow king and queen and a really thrilling “Coffee” duet between Maria Julieta Durán Sánchez and Collin Stephens. David Consuegra performed the most amazing leaps as the lead in the Trepak, and his personality shone as bright as his dancing. But the tiniest students stole our hearts when they pranced across the stage as lambs in fluffy white with little black socks.

Nutcracker Dipped in Chocolate

Chanel Holland’s Nutcracker Dipped in Chocolate (with additional choreography by Elexus Freeman-Filmore, Ibn Snell, Kiara Prescott, and Tony Rhodes) mixed dance styles and music, from Tchaikovsky to house and gospel to the music of Africa and Brazil, for a performance uniquely suited to its mostly Black audience (a sold-out crowd on December 16 and 17 at Drexel’s Mandell Theater). It began with the Grio, or storyteller, played by Beaux in a top hat, flowing cape and cane, his rich, warm voice inviting us into the story. Clara, performed by Monique Antonia Bland on pointe, again played an older girl on the cusp of adulthood. And here, too, the tiniest dancers melted us—this time as little mice, with their tails peeking out from beneath their tiny tutus. By contrast, the battle between Ty Ross as the Mouse King and Kevin Harris as the Nutcracker brought the drama. Holland set the battle to Orff’s Carmina Burana, upping the intensity, and the dancers gave a gripping performance.

8 dancers, some adult & some child, pose on stilts with costumes in bright African-style prints and accessories.
‘The Nutcracker’ meets the African diaspora: the company of ‘The Nutcracker Dipped in Chocolate.’ (Photo by Julieanne Harris.)

Act 2 explored African and diaspora cultures. The “Praise Dance,” set to Kirk Franklin’s Hosanna, was one of my favorites, featuring the women in long and flowing white dresses on folding chairs, skirts spread and arms raised. The dancing took us to church with hints of Alvin Ailey. I loved the unison, the flow of the dance, and the swirl of the skirts. The West African section included a stilt dancer, Sista Maranda Thomas Boozie, and dancers in grass skirts parading down the aisles as they made their way to the stage. The dance of the flowers returned us to Tchaikovsky, with Nya Cunningham as the lead. Her flower court had nice unison but needed to work a little on posture. Cunningham, in a red tutu with gold netting, was a delight as always, her pointework light and quick and her arms reaching out as if gathering her flowers.

Fortunately, dance is not a race, so we don’t need to declare a winner. Philly is lucky to have them all!

What, When, Where

The Nutcracker. Choreography by George Balanchine. Philadelphia Ballet. $25-$292, plus a 10-percent convenience fee. December 8-30, 2023, at the Academy of Music, 240 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or

Classic Nutcracker. Choreography by Peter Stark. Rock School for Dance Education. $9.50-$110, plus a $10 fee. December 15-17, 2023, at the Miller Theater, 250 S Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 551-7010

Nutcracker Dipped in Chocolate. Choreography by Chanel Holland and others. Chocolate Ballerina Company. $40-$110. December 16-17, 2023, at the Mandell Theater, 3220 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia.


The Academy of Music, the Miller Theater, and the Mandell Theater are wheelchair-accessible venues.

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