The Nutcracker, like so many holiday traditions, is an experience rich with nostalgia. For many, the classical ballet is the only ballet they’ve ever seen; for others, it’s an annual tradition that began in childhood; for others, the music, characters and movement summon memories of the times when they’ve played or danced it themselves.
Regardless of one’s experience with this magnificent and often-produced work — and whether with local, regional or national professional companies — the Grand Rapids Ballet’s current Nutcracker will undoubtedly surpass expectations. Put simply, this production is flawless. It is joyful, family friendly and yet also offers exquisite classical dance and live orchestration of the world’s most beloved score. This Nutcracker is no mere holiday entertainment; it is majestic artistry all the way around. From music to choreography and dancing, to costumes, sets and lighting design, it’s a magical experience and a magnificent showcase of Grand Rapids’ truly grand high art.
Patrons not moved to utter delight, if not tears of joy, are simply not paying attention.
To begin, the Grand Rapids Symphony conducted by John Varineau brings powerful drama and beauty to Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous Nutcracker Suite. Complete with live chorale singers in the pit, this extraordinary orchestra makes this music come alive in a way that makes it sound new.
Choreography by Val Caniparoli offers delightful group and partner dances in the party scene, innovative solos, gorgeous corps work, and heart-achingly beautiful pas de deux. All of the recognizable favorites (snowflakes, sugar plum fairies, fun and light-hearted fight scenes, and bold dances inspired by cultures from around the world) are here with nothing too weird or unexpected.
What is truly marvelous and unexpected, however, is the phenomenal set and production design from picture book creator Chris Van Allsburg and Tony Award-winner Eugene Lee, with remarkable lighting design from Paul Miller. Wildly innovative projected images create three-dimensional effects that inspire wonder, awe, and sometimes laughter. Little details like projected tiny white mice running around the gloriously Victorian living room complement grand unique effects, such as the way in which the glimmering Christmas tree and mantle clock grow and expand into the beautiful dream sequence. These effects are downright magical and provide utterly seamless transitions and unprecedented narrative clarity in a rather complex story to stage without confusion — especially for children.
Likewise, Artistic Director Patricia Barker’s costume design is both fantastical and wonderfully practical, from bolero and soldier jackets for men to platter tutus and tiaras for the women. Each of the magnificent characters is distinct and built by complementary movement and dress. For example, the long and flowing tulle of the snowflakes’ tutus fall and flicker beneath overhead spot lights, looking like, well, snowflakes.
But most exquisite of all is the artistry of this beautifully trained and fully capable company of extraordinary dancers that rivals that of much larger companies in much bigger cities. The Nutcracker is a beast of a show to mount successfully, and this difficult show turns out to be an amazing showcase for the Grand Rapids Ballet.
The corps work such as that in the dance of the snowflakes and waltz of the flowers offers grand elegance, clean lines and gorgeous pointe work over and over again, and is interspersed with solos and pas de deux that inspire, at turns, laughter and tears. Among many notable performers, Micaelina Ritschl and Ennis Gomez together create an unforgettable and charming Arabian Spice pas de deux with stunning extensions, attitudes, and articulation through their spines. Prima ballerina Dawnell Dryja is a sweet and commanding Sugar Plum Fairy with mesmerizing chin turns. And real-life couple David Schultz and Laura McQueen Schultz make for the most convincingly romantic Nutcracker Prince and Dream Clara. The way she falls into his arms and he lifts her so that she appears to just hang in the air, sometimes upside down, for days, is jaw dropping. As are their turns, their perfectly matching lines, and her powerful port a bras that are unparalleled in expressivity. It is truly a gift to watch these two dance these roles together.
In this exceptional Nutcracker, there is simply no detail overlooked, no opportunity for the creation of magic lost. It’s rare for a critic to have the time or desire to see a show more than once, but this Nutcracker is so profoundly good I would gladly see every single performance. It’s a sumptuous feast for all the senses and no doubt a new and remarkable experience each night that also recreates the sweetest of individual memories past.
Grand Rapids Ballet