For anyone in search of some extra holiday spirit this season, The National Ballet of Canada’s (NBoC) rendition of The Nutcracker certainly does not fall short. Putting a unique spin on E. T. A. Hoffman’s classic tale, the performance on Saturday December 10 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts aims to captivate the imaginations of audiences of all ages, with whimsical sets, fantastical characters and an overall essence of Christmas wonder that fills the auditorium.
The curtain rises to reveal a nineteenth century rustic barn with detailed woodwork accented by lavish Christmas décor, designed by Santo Loquasto. Siblings Marie (played by Sophie Alexander) and Misha (Simon Adamson De Luca) hastily prepare for their parents’ Christmas gathering with their friend Peter (Skylar Campbell) – who later plays the Nutcracker.
The familiar chords of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s beloved music strike up (Paul Hoskins conducts the NBoC Orchestra) as party guests twirl in cheerful pas de deux like the falling snow around them, led by James Kudelka’s choreography.
Amid the dancing, snowball fights, and trays of food being carried (and dropped), Uncle Nikolai (Robert Stephen) arrives, mesmerizing viewers in a lavish red overcoat that complements his every wild move. Along with a dancing mare, Nikolai brings with him two dancers who prove it possible to dance en pointe and on roller skates in full bear suits.
The spotlight finally begins to shift from the overwhelming commotion on stage to young Alexander, who captivated with her sweet presence as she graciously accepted Nikolai’s unusual gift of a nutcracker.
Bright firecrackers ignite an enchanted scene, and the Christmas tree at centre stage spontaneously begins to grow. Marie and Misha wake from their slumbers to a stampede of toys that have magically come to life, including Marie’s Nutcracker and the Tsar of Mice (Jack Bertinshaw), who battle in a hysterical duel.
While many anticipate the Sugar Plum Fairy as the height of the ballet, in this performance, the snow scene proved otherwise. The stage transforms into a captivating Winter Wonderland fit for a Snow Queen: cue the entry of Alexandra MacDonald and her Icicles (Brent Parolin and Nan Wang). Dancing through the glistening forest, complete with giant crystal snowflakes and falling snow, the trio danced in flawless unison, with almost hypnotizing precision. The extraordinary lift that carries the Snow Queen on and off stage upside down above the Icicles’ heads certainly showed the dancers’ physical skill and commitment. Kudelka’s fresh choreography for the Snow Maidens perfectly accented Tchaikovsky’s music with quick bourrées and delicate footwork.
Marie, Misha and the Nutcracker arrive at the majestic gold and red–accented Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy, reminiscent of a Russian palace, at the start of Act II. At the centre of the swirling staircases sits a large, gold Fabergé egg. As Hoskins strikes up another renowned Tchaikovsky melody, a vision of beauty in a soft pink, sparkling tutu emerges and briskly descends the steps. Jillian Vanstone, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, delighted her guests with exquisite leg extensions and impressive leaps about the stage, yet marred the characterization with a distracting grin that contrasted the graceful waltz. Able to redeem herself, Vanstone performed a timeless pas de deux with Campbell that exhibited incredible turning combinations, as the Nutcracker expresses his love for the Sugar Plum Fairy. Off to a shaky start, the duo shared a connection that brought some audience members to tears.
After recounting details of their journey, The Nutcracker, Marie, and Misha receive gifts of Spanish chocolates and Arabian coffee from Empress Dowager Baba (Rebekah Rimsay) and Grand Duke Nikolai. The dance of the grandiose feast, humorously prepared by the mini chefs, brought an element of cultural diversity to the performance and the youngest students of Canada’s National Ballet School added a heart-warming touch as they frolicked on stage dressed in lamb costumes.
Jordana Daumec, as the Bee, entered performing impressive, brisk footwork initiating the end of winter. Executing synchronized leaps and pirouettes, a group of dancers in pastel-coloured, romantic tutus resemble the freshly blooming flowers and branches of spring. They signify a change of season and a new beginning for Marie and Misha, bringing the ballet to a close.
The cast filled the stage for a final bow, each individual grinning from ear to ear, and the audience rose to a standing ovation to recognize a job well. It is safe to say audience members, young and old, left feeling a little extra Christmas spirit after this magical performance.
The National Ballet of Canada performs The Nutcracker from December 10 through December 31 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.