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May 19 2019

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Phoenix New Times' Lynn Trimble reviews Ballet Arizona's The Nutcracker, playing in Phoenix through December 24.

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Ballet Arizona Sparkles in The Nutcracker at Symphony Hall

There’s a fresh, new sparkle on The Nutcracker, which Ballet Arizona performs at Symphony Hall through Sunday, December 24.

In its 2017 production, the company uses more than 100,000 Swarovski crystals in the snow scene that closes out the first act. But that’s not the only reason the opening night performance on Friday, December 8, glistened.

The show was a magical intersection of ebullient dance, playful yet precise choreography, and ethereal design elements. Live music heightened the sensory experience this year, and smart casting helped the production feel fresh.

Ballet Arizona has been performing The Nutcracker, which originated in Russia during the late 19th century, since the company was founded in 1986. The current production was choreographed by Ib Andersen, artistic director for Ballet Arizona since 2000.

The Phoenix Symphony plays the score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Timothy Russell conducts the musicians with full flourish, especially during that snow scene when all those crystals get their moment to shine.

Andersen’s take on The Nutcracker feels particularly playful this year, perhaps because the innocence at the heart of the story contrasts so starkly with events that saturate the digital lives of today’s audiences.

The Nutcracker is escapism par excellence, and Andersen plays up its humorous qualities – with mouse warriors that wiggle more than they wage battle against the Nutcracker, relatives who sneak sips directly from champagne bottles, and the like.

This year’s cast spotlights dancers who’ve been with the company for a relatively short period of time. They’re a talented bunch, and it’s refreshing to see not only new faces, but also an increasing coherence in the way these dancers perform together.

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A pair of Cuban-born dancers performed the roles of Snow Queen and Snow King, on opening night. Arianni Martin joined Ballet Arizona in 2013, and Randy Pacheco in 2015. Together they convey an easy elegance, while pulling audience member’s into Clara’s sense of wonder.

They returned during the second act to perform the Arabian Coffee dance, which is typically infused with hints of passionate sensuality. Here, the duo lacked chemistry, and one of the ballet’s most anticipated moments faltered.

The young Clara, whose family celebration and subsequent dream are at the core of The Nutcracker story, was well performed by Cheyenne You on opening night. Her Clara is spritely, energetic, and buoyant – setting the tone for the entire ballet.

The Chinese Tea dance in the second act was particularly engaging, as Amber Lewis, an Australia-born dancer who joined Ballet Arizona in 2012, delivered a bubbly performance with perfectly exaggerated arm movements and facial expressions. The Russian Trepak dance was marred when a dancer had to press his own face to get a failing fake beard back in place.

Such bobbles are easily forgiven, however, because they were followed by exceptional performances by Ethan Price and Mimi Tompkins. Phoenix-born Price trained at The School of Ballet Arizona, and joined the company this season. Tompkins hails from Washington, D.C., and joined Ballet Arizona in 2014.

These dancers are beautiful paired as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, in part because of Price’s partnering skill. When Price catches or elevates Tompkins, it’s as if she’d just found a supple satin pillow to perfectly cradle her movement.

Under Andersen’s direction, every character embodies sweetness, as if he’s working to build a giant gingerbread house for the audience to savor. At times, however, it’s a bit much.

The mysterious Drosselmeyer who works his magic on Christmas Eve, bringing the Nutcracker and other objects to life, is sweet and charming in this production. Years ago, Andersen’s Drosselmeyer wasn’t merely mischievous. He had just the right touch of menace.

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Drosselmeyer was danced by Brazil-born Helio Lima, who joined the company is 2015, on opening night. His portrayal was charming, resonating with the overall production. But it lacked the depth of Drosselmeyer’s slightly darker side.

Even the set design felt a bit over the top at times. Smoke literally billowed from a chimney on the Mouse King’s palace before his mouse soldiers appeared. And snow that fell during the final scene in act one gave the impression that the New Year’s Eve ball in New York’s Times Square might have broken overhead, and rained down on the dancers below it.

Of course, The Nutcracker is the stuff of childhood dreams and imagination. Cynicism aside, even the excesses add to its charm. It’s hard to imagine a year when two hours of pure, unadulterated sparkle would be more fitting.

Ballet Arizona performs The Nutcracker at Phoenix Symphony Hall through Sunday, December 24. Tickets start at $25, and are available on the Ballet Arizona website.

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