A little cheekier
For years, now, I have thought that Michael Pink’s The Nutcracker, up and running again as the Milwaukee Ballet’s holiday perennial, to be just about perfect. And then, every year, Pink and his evolving casts make it a little better. This season’s Nutcracker observes the sentiment of the season but is just a little cheekier and funnier than prior editions.
At the Sunday (Dec. 11) matinee, Marc Pettroci played Fritz, the bratty son in the Tannenbaum family, with his usual irresistible mischievous glee. Fritz gets in everyone’s hair, but especially targets his pranks at his sister, Clara. Some dancers have played Clara as the innocent victim. Not Courtney Kramer; her Clara dishes it out, but gets away with it because, well, she’s a girl. Kramer and Petrocci worked out all sorts of comic business together, and it’s really funny. In my favorite bit, which I believe to be new for 2011, Kramer finds herself behind her “brother” in a circle in the Grandfather’s Dance. Her eyes light up, she grabs his shoulders and spins him around. Petrocci reels dizzily through the rest of the number. I admire the way Pink weaves so much of the comedy into actual dancing, as opposed to imposing slapstick on the ballet.
The above incident was but one of many amusing incidents that occur amid crowded scenes. Pink and his company are masters of such scenes. They have learned to make them rich enough to engage the eye wherever it might land, yet keep the overall stage picture organized. That’s why the Act 1 party scenes, so often dull and confusing, are so vibrant, amusing and clear in the Milwaukee Ballet Nutcracker.
The company danced at a very high level, from the principals down to the younger students in the Mother Ginger number. Valerie Harmon and David Hovhanissyan played Marie and Nutcracker Prince/Karl, the big dancing and romantic roles. They have two big duets: A sweeping, first-bloom-of-love contemporary number that Pink devised, featuring a spectacular one-handed lift that the two dispatched with blissful confidence; and the Sugar Plum pas de deux, the only bit of 19th-century Petipa/Ivanov Classical choreography Pink retained. Taken together, the dances transform the couple from starry-eyed teenagers in love to a couple ready to take their formal place in society. In Sugarplum, Hovhanissyan’s easy athleticism, fine technique and manly presence pleased aesthetically and said all the right things about the character. Harmon’s bright countenance and pure, poised technique did the same for Marie.
Do note, though, that just before the ascension of the lovers to their new adult status, Jack in the Box (Barry Molina, limber and fun in a big gymnastic role) briefly but ceremoniously displayed the severed head of a vanquished rat on a silver platter. That’s new this year, and a droll joke that helps to define the spirit of the 2011 show.
The Milwaukee Ballet’s The Nutcracker is no mere holiday obligation. It is worth seeing year after year, as new ideas and new dancers refresh Michael Pink’s beautiful, ingenious show every December.
The Nutcracker runs at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall through Dec. 26, with many cast rotations. For tickets, visit the Milwaukee Ballet website, call the company (414 902-2103) or call the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.