The Milwaukee Ballet’s Nutcracker
One of the two central characters of Michael Pink’s The Nutcracker, which the Milwaukee Ballet opened Friday night, does not even appear in the original. Pink invented Marie, the older sister of the ubiquitous Clara.
During the course of the ballet, Pink’s invention passes from late girlhood to mature womanhood. She enchants the Nutcracker Prince, who begins as Drosselmeyer’s anxious, earnest young assistant and becomes, at the end of a dream adventure, a man tested and not found wanting. It’s rather like Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but lighter in tone and more uniformly comic.
The chain of amazing stage events — the growth of the gigantic Christmas tree, the conveyance to the Kingdom of the Sweets, the spectacular dancing — occur for very good reasons in this Nutcracker. The logic gives the story pace that aligns with the dancing and with Tchaikovsky’s music. (Pasquale Laurino conducted the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra, which played well but was garishly amplified in Act 1. Maybe it was just me, but I thought the amplification much better in Act 2.)
Diana Stetsura played Marie Friday. She was splendid. Stetsura was utterly in control throughout. Yet she exactly portrayed an excitable, natural teen in the party scene. And she appeared drunk with love and athletic abandon in her first pas de deux with David Hovhannisyan, her Nutcracker cavalier. This is one of Pink’s best duets, a whirl of delirious lifts from which Stetsura plummets back into the strong arms of her new love. It’s young, fleet and thrilling.
Hovhannisyan, likewise, appeared completely wild but was perfectly secure. His neatly centered in his balance allows him to pull off daring virtuoso feats with aplomb. He was more than a reassuring partner for Stetsura. He felt the timing and weight of her phrasing and fell in with it beautifully.
Pink assigns Petipa’s traditional Sugar Plum pas de deux to his lead couple, to show how they have arrived at a new maturity after their adventures. Stetsura and Hohvannisyan nailed it, and not only in terms of the steps. The poise and nobility of the grand style shone through their dancing. That pas de deux might be the best stretch of Classical dancing I’ve seen from the Milwaukee Ballet during Pink’s tenure.
This Nutcracker offers endless charms beyond the lead couple. Zack Brown’s sets — the fanciful carousel, the amazing growing tree and house, the steam train that takes the protagonists to a new world, and so on — remain as enchanting as ever.
All the character dances and roles went well, particularly the cobras-in-love Arabian, of Raven Wales and Douglas McCubbin, and the clowns. Pink calls them The Jacks, with Ryan Martin as the leader and Matthew Frain and Barry Molina as his fellow tumbling, pratfalling stooges. They were a riot, and they ended the evening climbing over the seats in Uihlein Hall and whooping it up for their comrades on stage.
The Jacks and the whole company gave the impression that nothing on earth is more fun than putting on The Nutcracker in Milwaukee. When they have fun, we have fun.
The Nutcracker runs, with various cast rotations, at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall through Dec. 27. For tickets and further information, visit the MBC website or call the company’s ticket line, 414-902-2103.