Stage: Wednesday, December 21, 2005
TBT’s ‘Nutcracker’ was more than just fancy costumes — it was good dancing, too.
(Sugar) Plum Good

Both TBT and MCB deliver laudable yet divergent takes on the holiday classic.


Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker began as a gift from the St. Petersburg Ballet, with which the composer had collaborated for years, to its chief patron, the Russian imperial family. On both sides of the footlights, the Christmas ballet continues giving. Every year, a new generation of dancers gets its first taste of stage experience, taking on one of the many character roles — partygoer, mouse, soldier, angel, flower. (As a youngster, legendary choreographer George Balanchine made his dance debut in a St. Petersburg Nutcracker.)

With a story full of magic and fairy-tale wonder, most mainstream productions wrap audiences in a warm bear hug, not unlike an old Disney film, everything set to a compelling score that never flags. In concert form, a lot of the music that accompanies the character dances in the second act is performed ad nauseum, but the dramatic music between the showpieces holds the ballet together and is as joyous a bit of composition as anything in the classical music canon.

Though the two major Nutcracker’s in Cowtown this season are wildly different, each is worth a visit — Texas Ballet Theater’s for its sumptuous, big-budget show, and Metropolitan Classical Ballet’s for its streamlined, Russian-oriented version.

It used to be that you went to TBT for the dazzling imagery and MCB for the dancing, but not anymore. Since Ben Stevenson took over as TBT’s artistic director, the dancing has improved dramatically. It is flowering along with the coming of age of the husband-and-wife team of Julie Gumbinner and Lucas Priolo, two young dancers who appeared to be marking time since becoming principals last year but who have really stepped out this year to become a major duo.

On opening night, Priolo was the Prince to Gumbinner’s Sugar Plum Fairy, and in Stevenson’s beguiling choreography, their performances were revelatory. Gumbinner reminded me of ballerinas from an earlier age — she went up on point with gentle ease, looking as if she could stay there all evening, and her languid arms followed the musical line with unerring taste. She was equally deft when the steps demanded zip and snap.

Priolo has matured into a strong, elegant partner — he lands his jumps without a sound. The two gave a seamless performance, meeting every challenge of Stevenson’s lyrical, Royal Ballet-like choreography, from the high-flying lifts to the slow-motion descents.

TBT also has a lot of veteran performers to lean on, especially Enrica Guana Tseng, who on opening night was a lovely Snow Queen. (During her winter scene, fake snow fell gently from the roof of the auditorium and onto the crowd, to the delight of the kids in attendance — and some adults.) With his great technique and engaging stage presence, young marvel Andre Silva never ceases to amaze, and Thomas Kilps is another show-stopping performer.

Though most of TBT’s men can jump and twirl from now until next year, many of them lack the upper-body strength for smooth lifts. On another night, Alexander Kotelenets had trouble keeping up with Michele Gifford as they danced the Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy. Understandably, she seemed unsure of his support, and the performance didn’t sparkle.

Lifting is no problem for Michael Clark, and he gave a knock-out of an Arabian Dance with his partner, Carolyn Judson, who managed all kinds of contortions over his head. The couple’s dance, a popular favorite, is one of the best I’ve come across.

Even though MCB doesn’t have the funds to muster a TBT-caliber spectacle, the Arlington-based company still produces a top-shelf show, thanks especially to the power of the dancing. On opening weekend during the evening performances in Arlington’s Texas Hall, Olga Pavlova took on the role of the Fairy Doll, as the Sugar Plum Fairy is called here. A major, Russian-trained talent with impeccable style, she danced with Andrey Prikhodko, another Russian-trained dancer, and there was magic in the air. Pavlova is a powerhouse ballerina with a big heart and extraordinary dramatic gifts (even though all of her skills weren’t put to work in the few minutes of pure dance here).

On Sunday afternoon, newcomer Svetlana Kuzyanina was an exquisite Fairy Doll. Her partner, guest artist Alexei Tyukov, was powerful though a bit rough around the edges. With tiny Clara (young Molly Berger), he was remarkably supportive, holding her as if she might break in his hands.

My perennial complaint with MCB’s production is that Clara (typically played by an advanced student, not a pro) dances throughout the show, including the Snow Scene, which does away with the Snow Queen. Using modified choreography, Clara also performs with the Prince, robbing the audience of a significant dance moment and robbing the company of the chance to show off its rich roster of splendid ballerinas.

This year, MCB debuted its Metropolitan Classical Ballet Orchestra, a contract group that this time was made up mostly of Dallas Opera Orchestra musicians who had time off between opera dates. The orchestra performed valiantly under the direction of Ron Sigelman, former assistant conductor of the Fort Worth Symphony, who’s also been named conductor of the symphony in Springfield, Mo., this season.

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