My review is up/ out in print for Leo Weekly and the Lousiville Ballet. Check it out!
Sitting down to write this was actually pretty hard- I really wanted to do justice to the show, and to say something resonating about why this company is so special to me. I’m not exactly sure that came through, word count, you know. I had to take out pretty much every joke, every detail, every personal sentiment. 550 is even a generous amount to describe a show, but still, not enough for the ever-babbling me.
When I first began writing this piece I literally stared at my computer screen for a few minutes completely dumb-founded on how to start it. So I just let stuff come out and then went back and edited (and edited and edited and then was re-edited by the paper who then made the mistake of saying that I hadn’t seen the show debut in 2009- which I did. Owell. Small detail)
So here’s the full version: full of sappy sentimentality, bad jokes, and typos. I think the printed version does a fine enough job of promoting the show, but the Company and the experience I had back in 2008/08 and from the audience last weekend, is better served with the long version. More is more! Enjoy.
The Brown-Forman Nutccracker 2011
There are many things that I hate about the month of December; obligatory parties, cold weather that freezes my car in the driveway, and junk food everywhere when I’m trying to stay trim. To me, December also equals ‘The Nutcracker’. Sixteen of my twenty-five years of life have been spent dancing this classic. Let’s break down the nutcracker shall we? Act one opens with a family party- and there aren’t even ugly sweaters to make it fun. Then the main character, a young girl named Marie is given a present of a toy Nutcracker, falls asleep post-party and has a wacky dream of the toy coming to life. As if there isn’t’ enough war in the real world, it also seeps into ballet when a battle occurs between the brought-to-life toys and a band of mice and rats. So Marie has a pest problem in her house. Then there is a snow scene, and who doesn’t love being caught in a blizzard? Curtain up on Act two where Marie basically sits back and is entertained by a series of dancers representing international fattening foods like some kind of sugar-laden TV dinner. If you look at the basic framework, call me a Grinch but no thank you.
I joined the Louisville Ballet as a trainee in 2008, my first job out of college. I think back on that time as ‘living the dream’. 2008 was also the final year the Louisville Ballet produced the version of the Nutcracker with choreography by Alun Jones. I recall sitting in the studio with the rest of the company as Bruce Simpson, the artistic Director, showed us sketches of the brand new costumes and set designs for the new rendition that would debut in 2009 and feeling so delighted and excited about what I imagined the show would be. That next year I was living and dancing elsewhere but I returned to see the show. I have an enormous sentimental attachment to Louisville as a city for the time I spent living here, for my first job, and for the incredible friends I made at the Louisville Ballet. But no amount of love and admiration would cause me to overlook current gas prices to see a nutcracker, of all things, unless I knew that I was in for a serious artistic treat. Based on my insider knowledge from seeing the plans in 2008 and knowing the caliber of the company, having played my own small part in its history, I knew this would be the case. Here I am, two years later, repeating my own tradition and travelling away from my current hometown of St. Louis to see my friends, my favorite city, and most of all, my favorite company and favorite version of ‘The Nutcracker’.
This is an excellent show on so many levels. The Nutcracker is a perfect holiday show because it is pure theatrical
indulgence. The Tchaikovsky music that is so over-played in holiday commercials is so dynamic, beautiful, and familiar as any Christmas Carol. The Kentucky Center is a beautiful theatre and provides an incredible space and options for the technical aspects and none of these opportunities are overlooked by the Louisville Ballet. The design aspect is almost a show in itself, and is unlike any other Nutcracker I’ve ever seen. Rather than the typical forest-scene backdrop, the snow scene set features a glittering frozen over fountain. The stage picture for act two and the Kingdom of the sweets features gorgeous tall glowing columns and a dark ceiling speckled with bright white lights like stars in a night sky. I recall Mr. Simpson speaking about the idea of the kingdom being in a place of light, without boundaries. So much thought and individuality went into this production. The party scene shows a gorgeous stage image with gray militarist costumes and lovely pastel dresses reminiscent of the classic Old south. An extra touch of personalizing the classic nutcracker comes from the transformation of the Mother Ginger and her children into Madam Derby and her jockeys. These kinds of attempts often turn gimmicky or simply distract from the story. Why mess with something that is already a tradition, and is working just fine for companies all over the world? Every aspect of change in this version was so clearly thought-out that it only adds to an already spectacular ballet. While I adored the old version that I was privileged to take part in, the new version also includes new choreography from renowned choreographer, Val Caniparoli. Just as new sets, new costumes, and new characters breathe fresh life into the show, Caniparoli’s touch adds a new perspective and dynamic. It is very tricky to make the silent art form of dance humorous, and he does this exceptionally well, particularly in the battle scene. Also apparent is a clear love and understanding of classical corps work, with similarities in the structured lines of the snow scene to other classical ‘white’ ballets such as Swan Lake and La Bayadere, and a likeness in the Waltz of the Flowers corps to famous romantic ballets such as Giselle. His technically challenging style brings the ballet into the modern era with a lightness and quickness that displays the virtuosic quality of these incredible performers.
Frankly, you could put these dancers on a blank stage in pajamas and it would still be worth the ticket. Especially remarkable performances came from Kateryna Sellers and Evgeni Dokoukine as the lead Arabian couple, a variation made even more dazzling with the illusion that Sellers magically levitates before descending to the stage. The production is laced with sleight of hand and magic illusions designed brilliantly by Marshall Magoon. I can usually figure out staging tricks but I don’t know how they do these. Another standout was Natalia Ashikhmina as the Rose who besides impeccable technique brought a lush and gracious quality that partnered perfectly with the undulating characteristic of the waltz music. She fluxuated between a bright dynamic in leaps and exceptionally quick turns and radiance in suspended balances and a gracious carriage of the arms. Also impressive was the corps of women as the snowflakes. This is the hardest version of the snow scene that I have seen and the attention to detail in the execution was staggering. Each dancer was uniformly as sharp and clean as crystal and selectively still as an icicle. I actually did get chills, no pun intended. Against such talented professionals, the students of the Louisville Ballet School held their own. The party children added a youthful charm, the angels a sweetness, and the mice and jockeys a wonderful playfulness and all looked well-trained and well-rehearsed.
A personal delight came to me in the casting of the Sugar Plum Fairy, which is a much-coveted role amongst professional ballerinas. In this performance, it was danced by Rachel Cahayla-Wynne who was besides being an incredible friend to me, an exceptionally talented apprentice in the company. It was a special treat for me to see her in the lead role, though anyone could enjoy her performance without knowing her as a person. Just as the story of the Nutcracker centers on a toy brought to life, she could have been a ballerina that walked right out of a music box. She was a picture of the perfect classical ballerina. Every pose was picture worthy, every gesture of the hands and arms was delicate, and every extension of the leg was exquisite. Special mention must be given to the end of her solo when she dazzled with a lightning fast circle of turns around the stage ending with a perfect pose.
I find it both gratifying and depressing to return to see the Louisville Ballet. It saddens me to no longer be dancing with such an incredible organization but it is such a pleasure to see how each individual like Rachel grows, and how they all continue to develop the art of ballet, down to the possibilities within a classic such as the Nutcracker. When it comes down to it, the Nutcracker is really about the wonder that a child can feel with magic, imagination, and dreams. That really sums up how I felt spending time ‘living the dream’ dancing with the Louisville Ballet and it is a return to that feeling no matter what show they are putting on. It is gratifying to know that this incredible group of artists is a part of my past, and waiting to see what they will do in the future is like waiting for a gift come the holidays. One safe bet for a few remaining weeks and again next year is ‘The Nutcracker’, and what a gift it is.