'Nutcracker' is filled with unexpected whimsy

Mike Dunham

You don't often see a chicken dance at a performance of "The Nutcracker" but that's just one of the surprises in the production from Cincinnati Ballet now showing at the Atwood Concert Hall. Victoria Morgan's choreography is tightly paced and filled with amusing touches. You don't want to blink lest you miss something.

This "Nutcracker" opens in the kitchen of the Stahlbaum family home where servants are preparing the feast and flirting, bringing the first laughs from the crowd at the Friday afternoon opening. The party scene sticks with the standard plot but Drosselmeyer's magic figures in a number of additional sight gags.

Sarah Latta, a 13-year-old from Wasilla, elegantly dances the role of the heroine, Clara, accompanied by her "imaginary friend," a poodle, played by petite Zoe Witter. They are among the 100 or so Alaskans involved with the show, mostly children who have been practicing with Alaska Dance Theatre. They're not wallpaper but are busy every moment they're onstage, joining the adult performers in the formal party dances of the first act.

Of the main dancers from Cincinnati, Cervilio Miguel Amador stood out as the Cavalier in Act Two. His pas de deux with Janessa Touchet's picture-perfect Sugar Plum Fairy was as athletic and well-fitted to Tchaikovsky's score as I have seen. The climax of the music coincided with one-handed lifts that had the audience breaking out in gasps and applause.

Also of note was Connor Redpath's Nutcracker Prince, especially his Act Two solo in which he spent most of the time in the air. The grace and quiet energy of Liang Fu warrants attention. He was the Father in Act One and the Arabian Dance Master in Act Two and will also dance the part of the Cavalier in alternating performances. (Amador is scheduled to dance the Snow King in those shows.)

The character dances felt particularly lively. The "Spanish Dance" was performed by two man-woman pairs. The "Arabian Dance" ended with the magic act appearance of "Mirlipoos," a group that appeared to be a mixture of poodles and flapper-era bathing beauties. The "Chinese Dance" included a lovely parade dragon.

The Mother Ginger character was a chicken posed on what looked like the bottom half of the more customary matron figure; the children who emerged from below her were chicks. They danced below as she flapped her wings and laid an egg. It may not be what one expected but it drew gleeful laughter from the younger folk.

The "Waltz of the Flowers" featured a big solo part for Sarah Hairston, who will dance the Sugar Plum Fairy in alternating shows. Again, not what we usually expect but the choreography and precision of the dancers pulled it off.

The "Waltz of the Snowflakes" was not as effective. For one thing, the snowflakes were in shapeless gowns that made them look like dancing dust mops and took the edge off some of the visual precision much of the time. However, there were ensemble passages -- usually involving arms -- that were breathtaking.

The gowns could be forgiven but not the bad electronic simulation of voices in the number. It might have been better to just let the orchestra -- consisting of 60-some Anchorage Symphony players -- take the notes.

One other group of locals in the show deserves a double round of ovations. The Gingerbread Men who stood sentry in the background of Act Two were fathers of children in the show and should get an award as role models for the arts.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.