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Festive nights
The Nutcracker at the Colonial

We all know that The Nutcracker ranks among the great Christmas symbols, but what is it about this ballet that people remember and want to revisit? And does everybody treasure the same Nutcracker scenes as everybody else? These questions probably haunt the creators of new Nutcracker productions when they’re pondering what things they can change and what they dare to leave out. Boston Ballet turned the loss of its usual venue at the Wang Theatre into an opportunity when it moved its Nutcracker into the smaller Colonial for this holiday season.

Artistic director Mikko Nissinen had a tricky situation on his hands. For the Colonial, the whole production had to be downsized, but one presumes it also had to be relatively low-budget, because next December, the show will go into the Opera House, a larger stage but not as large as the Wang. (Nothing is as large as the Wang.) Not only has the ballet been redesigned, it’s been tightened and streamlined theatrically. The results are mixed, but for me the size of the theater was a tremendous asset to the company. The work actually seemed more spacious than it was before.

The Wang has never done anything to enhance my appreciation of ballet dancing. Even if you can sit close enough to see more than shapes and lines, you cannot get close enough to make a visceral connection with the dancers, or they with you. The Colonial puts the audience in a much better relationship to the stage — congenial if not quite intimate — and also to itself. You bond with the other spectators in this space. You can see the whole orchestra and the balconies around you; you take in the performance on a collective level, not huddled in the darkness among faraway multitudes.

There are spectacular moments of dancing in The Nutcracker. On Thursday night, Joel Prouty and his Russian cohort (Raul Salamanca and Jared Nelson) belted out split jumps and squatting pinwheels that could have been seen halfway across the Common. But there are also the individual qualities of three ballerinas to see, and the spatial coordination of the corps de ballet, the details of the mime, the stylistic refinements of the Chocolate (Spanish) and Coffee (Arabian) dances. You lose these in a mega-house.

Of course, the dancers are more exposed here, and proximity works to advantage for some. I thought Romi Beppu as Dew Drop looked relaxed and radiant. The Sugar Plum Fairy I saw, Lorna Feijóo, has plenty of confidence, but within her customary big, virtuosic dancing you could also see a lot of thoughtful play with rhythm and balance. The Snow Queen, Larissa Ponomarenko (with Nelson Madrigal as Snow King), used a lot of tension but achieved a perfect line. Feijóo’s partner, Carlos Molina, matched her extensions beautifully when they were together, but his solo looked unsteady.

Nissinen has cut out a lot of busywork and clutter that the ballet had accumulated at the hands of many previous arrangers, and he’s strengthened the through-line. The Nutcracker that turns into a Prince (Molina) takes Clara (Misa Kuranaga) to the Kingdom of the Sweets, his home, so it makes sense for him to dance with Sugar Plum. And I liked the idea of having Droßelmeier (Gianni Di Marco) chaperon Clara as they watched the divertissements.

I thought the production was less fortunate in its design elements. Walt Spangler’s sets looked like the inside of a Miami Beach hotel circa 1950, just after the invention of plastic. With Pierre Lavoie’s sophisticated light-mixing effects, certain dark moments were really good: the baby mouse and the toys that flit through the gloom to introduce Clara’s dream, and the slow, sensuous twinings of Adriana Suárez and Mindaugas Bauzys in Coffee in a torrid dusk.

But a lot of the time, the lighting called attention to itself without particularly enhancing the stage. Some of it looked inept — as when the giant plastic snowflakes threw giant plastic shadows onto the Snow Queen. Some of it just looked eccentric — the bright steel-blue backlighting that silhouetted Clara and Droßelmeier but also made phantoms of Feijóo and Molina as they danced their pas de deux downstage, or the follow spots that singled out one dancer while his partners practically disappeared.

I’m thinking this Nutcracker is transitional. It delivers most of my essential things — the dream, the snow, the music and the dancing — and the dramaturgy is improved. Perhaps the tackiness will be temporary. Too bad the theater can’t be permanent.

AT TOWER AUDITORIUM at Massachusetts College of Art, Caitlin Corbett celebrated her 20th year of presenting dance in the Boston area. Corbett’s retrospective concert sampled older work and offered first performances of four new pieces. There wasn’t as much change as you might suppose over this span of decades, but what came across to me was a temperament very close to traditional, insistently reminding itself not to go there.

Corbett’s thematic preoccupations seem to center on an early-postmodern feminism: an inclusive and plainspoken approach to the idea of dancing, a respect for what bodies can do, an avoidance of going overboard with technical or emotional effects. The earliest examples on the program adopted playful shock elements. In the solo Wigwam Ladies (1984), a 30-minute piece reduced to a quarter of its length for the occasion, Corbett cavorts in a white fur bra and a pink quilted ball-fringed wrap-around mini-skirt over BVD bottoms. Car Dance (1988) was represented by Ann Steuernagel’s video of Corbett rehearsing in a studio and later a parking lot for a choreographed ensemble of unmatching automobiles.

Even these zany experiments featured Corbett’s dance strengths: a gift for arranging formal groupings of disparate elements, and what became a vocabulary of idiosyncratic movements that could be assembled in any order and subjected to alteration, repetition, or reshaping within a choreographic context. Through the ’90s and ’00s, Corbett has built group dances and solos from these materials, each with its own subtle personality.

The new Three Quartets, for six women working in consistent pairs, was set to parts of Michael Nyman’s minimalistic String Quartet No. 2. It could just as well have been called "Three Duets" or even "Four." The piece began with a single duet; then two more women entered, and after a dance together, the first pair left. Corbett went on to explore the simple question of entrances and exits, until the issue of who would appear and when became quite momentous. And then, with all the women using the same basic vocabulary, the dance proceeded into an intricate game of unison and non-unison patterns.

Corbett’s movement lexicon comprises slow falls and flingy jumping rotations, unadorned walking and small self-directed gestures. Often a person’s wayward arm or shoulder will pull her whole body into a pitched-forward lunge or a sensuous backbend. These moves are very clearly carved out of the space, and when groups separate into counterpoint, you grasp the way they’re related and different at the same time.

In Oh, a new solo for Erin Koh, a woman sings the Stephen Foster song "Oh Susannah" on tape at an unusually slow tempo while Koh works with a different time sense, often jamming extra moves together into the bar. Every time the singer arrives at the refrain, Koh repeats her own thematic phrase. Koh’s rhythmic variability made me realize that a lot of the other dancing in the concert had a sameness of phrasing — short, deliberate, and unstressed — that I guess is part of Corbett’s style too.

Koh, and Corbett, who danced together in Without Word (1998), came the closest to putting a personal expressiveness into the movement. But even they seemed determined to suppress their own tendencies to interpret it. Moves that started with emphasis or unexpected impetus would drain off into thin air or switch to a whole new idea rather than build into longer phrases or climaxes.

It isn’t that the dancers don’t let loose — they do in Three Quartets and Rain (2003). But only for short bursts, and always with fiercely non-committal looks on their faces. If the movement doesn’t muffle itself this way, Corbett’s designs and accompaniments do. Rattling teacups overtake piano music. Powerful projected images of birds, underwater swimmers, and serene rooftops dwarf the live dancers.

Corbett’s dance is most engaging, even endearing, when she goes all out with the idea that any person can be a dancer. For Slow Bird (2004), a grown-up woman, Shepley Metcalf, and her niece, fourth-grader Liliana Costa-Smith, perform a little gesture dance in unison. Irresistible. In Daisy Duet (1999), Keith Maddy and David Prum, two gentlemen of wildly differing physiques, work together, going from twinned unison to a single, tender lift, and end up lying down side by side. Dancer Kaela Lee and food professional Victor Tiernan trade lifts and falls in another premiere, Five or Six Things, suggesting and walking away from the idea of romantic love.

The pièce de resistance for people, Joycie’s Pie (1992), featured 12 civilians who skipped forward and backward in a line, then continued into precision reels, squares, and circles. They all took their parts very seriously but with animated good spirits. Some of them even smiled.

Issue Date: December 10 - 16, 2004
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