Eugene Ballet's "Nutcracker" seems even more family-friendly than it did when we last saw it here four years ago. Set designer Don Carson's Disney-flavored "look" is on the simple side, with flat backgrounds and few props, but there are bells and whistles when needed; Clare and the Prince travel via balloon. A few pyrotechnics and even some strobe lighting enliven the action. Mother Ginger bears a distinct resemblance to one of Cinderella's stepsisters. The Rat King is a pirate with vague overtones of Jack Sparrow, including Sparrow's uncanny ability to bounce back smiling after he's apparently been killed. The dolls and toys given to the children in the party scene reappear life-size later on.
At the first show on Friday, Clare was beautifully danced by Yoshie Oshima, who paired with Brian Ruiz as the Prince, doubling in the role of Drosselmeyer's nephew. In Toni Pimble's busy choreography, the nephew has more to do than just carry packages; he's romancing Clare way before the whole Prince thing takes place. They'll be paired again as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier at the matinee on Sunday.
At the opening performance those roles were glowingly danced by Kaori Fukui and Jun Tanabe, who will be Clara and the nephew at the Saturday matinee and the evening performance on Sunday. Fukui especially held my attention by her speed and balance as much as by her grace. For a couple of seconds she held a still pose en pointe -- that is on on her toes -- without any other support, no helping hand to steady her at the waist, no motion to permit an adjustment. At first Tanabe struck me as small for the Cavalier, though not out of proportion with Fukui. But he was amply muscular to perform the lifts and electrifying in his legwork, particularly in his spins at the end of Act Two.
Other highlights included Beth Maslinoff as the mechanical doll and Mitchell Gill as Drosselmeyer and in the Arabian Dance. Local buffs who recall Corey Betts' recent residency with Alaska Dance Theatre will note his appearance in the Russian Dance, a number that drew particular applause.
Local dancer Rose Montgomery-Webb makes Clare's naughty brother Fritz a major player in the party scene, both with her animated antics and expressions and with her excellent leaps. I don't think I've seen such a professionally danced Fritz before; typically the role is one of the children from the crowd who acts a little more than the rest but doesn't stand out, dance-wise.
The brief appearances of the squeaking Baby Mice and Angel Children are clear crowd-pleasers and overall the integration of the Eugene pros and Anchorage students comes off very smoothly. The big ensembles -- the party scene, the snow scene (skaters here) at the end of Act One and the Waltz of the Flowers -- are cleanly tied to the music and, thus, a joy to watch. Some extra non-Tchaikovsky percussion licks have been created to accompany a Lion Dance that precedes the Chinese Dance.
The biggest change from most previous productions comes in the second act when the Prince's narrative, in which he recounts what we just saw in the first act, is cut. This keeps the whole show about two hours long with intermission. It also gets us right into the popular character dances depicting different nationalities and, I think, helped the younger members of the audience stay attentive to appreciate the climactic grand pas de deux near the end.
And young dance fans there were, in abundance, at the Friday matinee. Those near me were well-behaved, but elsewhere in Atwood Hall someone had brought a toddler who yelled regularly for much of the performance. There was a time when the ushers would have refused to admit someone with a child in arms. And a number of people made late entrances, although that might be excused on account of the Black Friday traffic that plugged up Fifth Avenue long before many could reach the parking garages. If you're going to go, leave home early.
After the last Anchorage Symphony concert I was expecting better from the orchestra, led by Brian McWhorter. There were some intonation issues and even missed notes. It's said that some musicians get jaded from playing the familiar score so many times, and that's understandable. But they should know that the dancers over their heads are giving it their all in this production.
Also, this is great music, no matter how many times it gets played. It can be magical. And a good number of those in the audience will be hearing it for the first time.
The Nutcracker Ballet
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Atwood Concert Hall
Tickets: $37-$8150 at centertix.net