austin theatre review

Monday, December 19, 2005

Ballet Austin's The Nutcracker

Reviewed by Jonathon Morgan

I have two Christmas confessions to make. 1: I, with what seemed to be the entirety of Central Texas, saw Ballet Austin's The Nutcracker. 2: I had never, ever seen it before (my understanding girlfriend had to explain the story to me).

Now, I'm no slouch when it comes to live performance – I see most of what Austin has to offer, and create a fair amount of performance myself. However, I know next to nothing about ballet. Chances are you probably don't either, so I could lie, but instead of half-ass wanderings about pirouettes and pliès, I've decided – in the spirit of Ballet Austin's Nutcracker interpretation – to focus on something a little more middle-brow. This performance will be judged based on the following question: Did this production of The Nutcracker put me in the Christmas spirit?

As we walk in, the lights are bright, the faces are happy, the patrons are over-dressed, and there are lots of souvenirs for sale. We're on our way to Christmas success. As the jovial volunteer takes our tickets and gives us directions to our seat, I notice that the sounds of Christmas are filling the lobby and ringing in my ears. A group of high school students, no doubt the stars of their local glee club, are belting out timeless classics, and more timely, soon-to-be classics – the best of these scholastic songbirds also drawing on their dramatic abilities to fully embody the material. I politely ignore their well-intentioned musical misfires and think to myself: wow, it really has been a month since Thanksgiving. After hobnobbing with the men in the bathroom who'd been dragged by their spouses and girlfriends, I found my seat, feeling proud that I'd come of my own accord, and now bursting with the spirit of the season.

Then the show starts. There's not a lot of dancing, but the children on stage do look cute when they're all dressed up. In a kind of stylized mime, a bunch of kids get presents from their weird uncle with an eye patch. One girl gets a Nutcracker, and her nasty cousin, or brother, or some boy relative, gets angry and breaks it. This is a theme of the ballet's first scene: girls are sweet, boys are rambunctious and naughty. Occasionally the adults break the action to dance a little – and I know I don't know a lot about this stuff – but shouldn't they be dancing... ballet? Never mind, the weird uncle has fixed the toy Nutcracker, just in time for it to lead a battle against some rogue mice! Just as I'm starting to run low on holiday steam, wondering if all ballet has this little ballet dancing in it, lots of cute children run on stage in little angel costumes, and my seasonal chutzpah is revived. When the little girl slays the evil rat king, thus saving her former toy and turning him into a hot young prince, I nearly shout "Go Christmas!" Then, finally, some dancing, which apparently wasn't all that great as far as ballet is concerned (if the term "falling out of a turn" means anything to you, then you'll know why it was lackluster), but I didn't know, and didn't care – it looked real pretty to me. Down with the curtain, end of Act I.

Act II should be titled, "The Good Stuff". As the curtain rose and we're magically transported to the land of fancy, I realize where they've been hiding all the dancing. Plus, all the most famous parts of the music – you know, what you think of when somebody mentions "The Nutcracker Suite" – are in this part of the show. So, some fairies dance, and they do very well, and it looks nice, and I'm into the music – and then I see why Ballet Austin is so popular as a dance company (as opposed to simply an annual Christmas spectacle): the Russian dance, and the Arabian dance.

I know I've been somewhat of a smart ass for most of this review, but read the following without any hint of sarcasm: Orlando Julius Canova is phenomenal in the Russian dance – my stunted ballet knowledge aside, his technical ability as a performer and a dancer (jump after jump after jump, turn after turn after turn) is superb. Additionally, Stephen Mills's choreography in both these sections will move you whether you were paying attention to the rest of the show. Phew, it was almost as beautiful as Mayor Will Wynn was funny, making a cameo as Mother Ginger. I'm a relatively new Austinite, but after seeing the mayor of my new city grab his fake boobs and dance "the rollercoaster" in front of 2,000 people at a ballet concert, I'm sure I'll like it here. My general mood at this point in the evening: Christmas-tastic!

Then I was slightly bored for the rest of it. More fairies dance for the young girl and her much-too-old-former-Nutcracker beau, then everyone dances together, then the young girl wakes up with in her bed with only her Nutcracker toy – was it a dream? I don't really care if it was a dream or not, none of the other performances were really all that notable, and my knees are starting to hurt from the cramped little seats at Bass Concert Hall. But the good news is that I'm so pumped up with holiday cheer that none of it matters.

So, successful ballet? Probably not. Successful addition to my seasonal calendar of good-vibe, holiday extravaganzas? Absolutely. God bless us, everyone, and Ho Ho Ho to Ballet Austin for a fun night out.

Verdict: 6/10

Note: The Nutcracker runs through December 23, and tickets are available at Austin Ballet or by calling 512-469-SHOW.

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