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The New York Times: “The Nutcracker Chronicles: Dreaming of Snow”


PHOENIX — It seems there’s always a soprano outside Symphony Hall here, singing out of tune: not always the same woman, but always the same lack of pitch. On my visit, she was singing, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas.” Dream on: it was over 65 degrees here. After the matinee, I took a swim in the hotel’s outdoor pool.

Others here, though, share that dream. In the Symphony Hall lobby, plenty of people are having their photographs taken with a tutu-clad Sugar Plum Fairy in front of a snowscape and a Christmas tree. In the annals of “Nutcracker” sociology, the lobby photo opportunity is a chapter by itself.

The spread of ballet across America is one of the most remarkable dance phenomena of recent decades. Ballet Arizona is one of several companies I’ve visited now celebrating their 25th anniversary. This means that these companies were founded in 1985, a period that surely nobody in the world’s great ballet capitals thought of as one of expansion. Shouldn’t this make us rethink the history of ballet? In an era not generally viewed as a boom time and in places where it was esoteric, this art form has now become a local bloom.

I’ve previously only seen this company dance four plotless one-act ballets and I haven’t heard any advance word about his “Nutcracker.” I came here simply on a hunch that the pure-dance side might be interesting.

To my happy surprise, this production is – with Ballet West’s – one of the best discoveries of my “Nutcracker” marathon. Act 1 is particularly strong as theater: as in the score, something new is always happening. The party scene is engrossing and touching, and both Clara and the Nutcracker Prince (Drosselmeyer’s assistant in the early scene) are played with strokes of unusual seriousness. The dolls – Harlequin, Columbine and Soldier, emerging from big rococo cases – really register as an introduction to magic, ballet and drama.

Clara’s special relationship with her godfather Drosselmeyer is keenly but gently shown. Fritz’s breaking of the Nutcracker is well timed to the music, but so, unusually, is his callous laugh afterward. The transformation scenes are all riveting. The battle of mice and toy soldiers, brilliantly paced, has cartoon force. The nine-foot-tall Mouse King (funny and alarming with his extraordinary corpulence and violence) and the stiffly doll-like Nutcracker made for extraordinary fairytale combatants.

The land of snow is set against a vast starlit sky; the King and Queen of Snow dance with a New World spaciousness, and the musically poetic corps of 12 Snowflakes are inflamed with off-balance energy.

Act 2, though beginning with a remarkable flock of angels adult and infant, isn’t quite on the same level. Still, everything here is intelligently done. No one dance remotely resembles another. Where there are debts (the roles of Dew Drop, Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier owe much to Balanchine and Ivanov), they’re handsomely delivered. The section I enjoyed least – Mother Ginger with a dress the size of a dome and her children clinging to it – is a big audience hit.

The children – 45 at each performance – are among America’s best. Those who dance Clara, Nutcracker and Fritz are 11 to 13, and at the matinee Juliette Ochoa and Satchel Tanner count as among the finest interpreters of Clara and Nutcracker I’ve ever seen. Among the adults, Jillian Barrell applied her radiance and clarity in separate ways to illuminate Dew Drop (matinee) and Sugar Plum Fairy (evening). Timothy Russell’s conducting varies between galvanizing and plodding, but the Phoenix Symphony’s playing is consistently excellent.

When I peered over to see the orchestra pit, its floor was speckled with snowflakes like confetti.