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The Nutcracker

Dancing snowflakes in ABT's The Nutcracker.
(© Gene Schiavone)

Thousands of children will be introduced to the ballet this holiday season through The Nutcracker. The most family-friendly of Tchaikovsky's "big three" (the other two being Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty), The Nutcracker has become a tradition for those looking for a fine-arts experience over the holidays. Countless American ballet companies mount the show annually. From the looks on the faces of the kids in the audience, American Ballet Theatre's return engagement of The Nutcracker at BAM's Howard Gilman Opera House (where it premiered in 2010) is likely to create many lifetime ballet fans.

The Nutcracker takes place in the Stahlbaum house during the family's annual Christmas party, eagerly anticipated by the Stahlbaum children, Clara (Adelaide Clauss) and Fritz (Gregor Gillen). Clara's cool godfather, Drosselmeyer (Victor Barbee), performs magic and brings gifts for all the children, including a nutcracker doll for Clara. At the stroke of midnight, Clara shrinks to the size of the nutcracker and is immediately assaulted by the mouse king and his thugs. The Nutcracker (Duncan McIlwaine) rallies his toy soldiers to fight them off, with Clara casting the final blow when she chucks her shoe at the king. The Stahlbaum parlor dissolves into a terrifying winter blizzard. Luckily, Drosselmeyer arrives with a sleigh just in time to ferry Clara and the Nutcracker off to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where she herself(Zhong-Jing Fang) decides to throw a grand festival in celebration of Clara and the Nutcracker's bravery: Like the United Nations, but far more fun and useful, traditionally costumed representatives from around the world dance in their honor.

As is the case with most of Tchaikovsky's ballets, this is the point at which the plot completely stops in favor of pretty and impressive (and often self-indulgent) dance solos. It's also where Tchaikovsky's famous music becomes most recognizable. While the traditional elements are all still there (Chinese, Spanish, Polichinelles), choreographer Alexei Ratmansky has painted these divertissements with the slightest gloss of commentary: The Arabian dance becomes a meditation on the political complexities of polygamy, as four sister-wives plot against their well-built husband (James Whiteside). The Russian Trepak has become a bumbling, clownish affair with its three dancers crashing into one another. (Is this a dig at the Bolshoi train wreck? Ratmansky served as artistic director of the famous Russian ballet company before it became plagued by scandal.)

Dance-world political commentary aside, Ratmansky has created an irresistible Nutcracker that is sure to be enjoyed by all but the most jaded spectators. Richard Hudson's visually sumptuous costumes pop at every moment, from the terrifying seven-headed Mouse King to the five "Nutcracker's Sisters" (an invention of this production) with their pink top hats. As The Princess Clara and the Prince Nutcracker (the adult versions of Clara and her Nutcracker), Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes dazzle with their gravity-defying pas de deux, making this a perfect balance of creative innovation and classic technique.

Perhaps ABT's greatest achievement is showing that the ballet is not exotic and untouchable, but something that kids can participate in: Students from ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School join the adult company on stage, playing child party guests, mice (Justin Souriau-Levin killed it as the Little mouse), and even the two lead roles, Clara and the Nutcracker. As mentioned before, adult dancers take over for the grand pas de deux, playing an idealized vision of the future for the characters in the story as well as the real child dancers in the production. At curtain call, the kids got ovations on par with the adults. One can only guess how many kids will ask for ballet lessons from Santa this year after seeing this spectacular Nutcracker.