Stage: Wednesday, December 12, 2002
Sweet Ol’ Pace

FWDB dancers get to knowThe Nutcracker better thanany other assignment— and it shows.


One of the problems Fort Worth Dallas Ballet shares with other regional companies is that often a ballet will disappear after a few performances and not show up on the schedule again for years, if at all. Dancers just begin to get familiar with a piece and it’s gone — the victim of limited performing time. Unlike the big boys, such as American Ballet Theater or New York City Ballet, which can bring back popular ballets season after season, FWDB and its sister companies need constantly changing repertoires to lure audiences. This gets in the way of dancers developing much depth in their assignments.

But this isn’t true of The Nutcracker. Not only is the ballet an annual Christmas event, it’s relatively ubiquitous, considering that it’s performed by FWDB in venues other than Bass Hall. Before opening here, the ballet was danced in San Antonio, and, after running here, the Tchaikovsky classic will be taken to Dallas for a few shows. So the dancers, in alternating roles, have a chance to dig into the ballet and get to know it inside-out before it’s put aside.

And it shows. The first performance here was the best-looking opening the company has had in ages. There was a relaxed quality to the evening, a sureness of execution among the dancers, and an attention to detail that often eludes FWDB’s first nights.

A gorgeous production, with lush scenery and over-the-top fantasy effects, the show has held up well in its five years. The costumes are still bright and shiny, and the lighting seems somehow more atmospheric than before. The choreography is the Bruce Simpson version introduced last year before the FWDB ballet master went off to Louisville to run the company there. One can quibble over this and that aspect of his setting — the leisurely, Royal Ballet-looking gloss with which everything is coated, the pale character dances late in the performance, the non-threatening Mouse King, the cluttered fight scenes — but there’s no denying that the overall effect of this Nutcracker is pleasing, and leaves a lovely glow by the end. It certainly towers over the confused pile put together by the company’s last artistic director, Ben Houk. Now at least an audience can follow the story, even with the changes introduced.

Simpson added two pivotal characters, which may not be to everyone’s taste. His little Clara has an older sister now, and the wizard Drosselmeyer a young nephew; the two youngsters are in love. In Clara’s dream, they become the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier respectively and attend her in the Kingdom of Sweets. This explains Clara’s dream associations without involving her with anyone. A kindly Drosselmeyer, rather than the Nutcracker Prince or the Sugar Plum Fairy, accompanies her on the fantastic journey. She becomes a passive witness to the unfolding adventure, a child on the outside looking in with the rest of us.

Enrica Guana Tseng, with a number of performances under her belt, looked more at home as the Sugar Plum Fairy than she has in any role danced so far for FWDB. She blossomed into a striking presence as the evening progressed. Technically assured, her preparations nicely concealed, she even took chances throwing herself into supported turns with a gusto that appeared to force her partner, Grant Dettling, to the edge of what he can do right now in supporting her. His solo variations were carefully outlined rather than passionately danced, but he, too, showed better than in previous outings.

All the dancing, in fact, was good and solid, except, perhaps, for the three Merlitons, who looked like studio recitalists. With few flashy moments, the choreography chugged along at a steady, dream-like pace.

The Fort Worth Symphony in the pit began the evening with as offhand a reading of the Star-Spangled Banner as you’re likely to hear, which came as a surprise. The group sounded tired, and conductor Leanna Sterios had her hands full trying to light a fire under the musicians to illuminate Tchaikovsky’s wonderful ballet score. She finally succeeded in the first act, and she also showed none of the tempo disagreements with the dancers that plagued the opening of FWDB’s Giselle awhile back.

The whole evening reminded one viewer of a good Broadway touring company of a familiar show presented without stars. The audience was telling, too, from the subdued oh’s and ah’s of the little girl who was sitting close by, to the response at the end: There was no standing ovation, no bravos, but a warmth of feeling seemed to generate from the house, which, incidentally, stayed put to the very end. The audience almost seemed reluctant to break the spell and go back to the real world.

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