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Spectacular ‘Nutcracker’ works magic for holidays

The Arizona Republic, by Richard Nilsen

In Hollywood, they have a phrase about production budgets: Is the money spent visible “on the screen?”

Ballet Arizona’s new Nutcracker cost the company $1.8 million, and you can see every penny up there on the stage.

In terms of sheer theatrical spectacle, The Nutcracker is a complete winner. It is one of those productions where, when the curtain rises, the audience applauds the scenery. Not just applause: hoots and whoops.

The overture begins with a digital animation projected on a scrim: We see the village from a bird’s-eye view. It moves, like a crane shot, to the magician Drosselmeier’s house, when the lighting behind the scrim shows him inside packing Christmas gifts. The mix of digital with good old-fashioned stagecraft sets the tone for what follows.

The Nutcracker, more than any other ballet, is more event than dance. Especially in America, where it has become a holiday tradition, it delights children with what is for many their first taste of theater. And it gives them lots of magic: snow falling, trees growing, mice fighting, cannon firing. It is to dance what Jurassic Park is to movies.

And Ib Andersen’s new version gives the audience all that in spades. The evening is total delight.

Over and over, some coup de theatre leaves the audience gasping, as when the entire back of the stage drops away in a skein of floating red silk to reveal the Sugar Plum Fairy behind. Or the snow in which the Snow Angels dance – this time more blizzard than flurry.

The biggest change from the old production is the Battle with the Mouse Army. Last year, the whole thing was perfunctory at best. This year, with new costumes that turn the mice into 6-foot ratlike rodents, scurrying on all fours along the stage, the battle becomes a serious affair, and the climax of the first act.

Andersen is certainly right to focus so much attention on the theatricality of the ballet, because Nutcracker’s appeal is not to aficionados of dance, but to children.

So although there is some wonderful dancing, including a sensual Arabian Dance, owing as much to modern dance as to classical ballet, that brought screams of approval from the audience and the traditional pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, it is the theater that reigns in this Nutcracker, not the dance.

Special praise must be sent to young Carly Booth as Clara. Unlike many young dancers in the part, she has genuine stage presence, and it showed, not just in her dancing, but in her gestures and facial expression.

There are some who may complain that some of the new production verges on vulgar – the twitching of the Mouse King as he dies, for instance – but it is these enlivening details that make the production so appealing to the kids: At intermission, there were kids running up and down the aisles on all fours in imitation of the mice. They loved it.