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Louisville Ballet's 'Nutcracker' Again a Crowd-Pleaser

Louisville Ballet's "Brown-Forman Nutcracker"

Credit Sam English


This is the sixth year this particular iteration of “The Nutcracker” takes the stage at the Whitney Hall at the Kentucky Center. It plays through Dec. 21, with multiple casts. It's possible that you could see five different combinations of dancers in the principals' roles this month—a reminder that the Louisville Ballet is a very hard-working company.

For those who may be new to this version of the ballet, a quick recap: in 2009 Brown-Forman made a significant gift to the Louisville Ballet to redesign “The Nutcracker.” The result is Peter Cazalet's sumptuous setting for this seasonal favorite. From a comfortably bourgeois setting in mid-1830s Germany to the Art Deco-influenced Palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Cazalet's design provides a lush setting for Val Caniparoli's energetic choreography. Kudos to the costume staff that the costumes still appear new and fresh this many years after they were first introduced. An additional gift has ensured that audiences enjoy live music—under the baton of Tara Simoncic—from the Louisville Orchestra each year.

The audience at the first Sunday matinee of the season was predictably heavy on younger audience members, who became immediately entranced with the puppets and magic introduced during the overture. And, to be fair, the entrancement was not solely to be found among the younger audience members. Without providing too much of a spoiler, at the end of the first act, there is an effect which brings the audience into the world of the snowflakes delighting all ages.

One of the aspects that makes the “Brown-Forman Nutcracker” a crowd-pleaser is the annually changing roster of young dancers who fill the roles of children, rats, soldiers and angels. It is always impressive to see such young dancers take to the large Whitney stage and fill it with confidence and energy. This year's Fritz (Marie's bratty brother) is danced by Erin Crawford, who clearly has a grand time disrupting the party. The set piece party dance of the children was delightful and, in a sequence at the beginning of act two, the littlest dancers as the angels are charming in its simplicity and focus. The soldiers and rats—under the solid leadership of Phillip Velinov's Rat King—fill the stage with appropriate menace after the adults have gone to sleep.

In the casting I saw, Louisville Ballet trainee Marta Kelly dances the role of Marie. It is exciting to see younger members of the company essay significant roles, and the length of the run of “The Nutcracker” makes this more possible in a mainstage setting. Marie is also danced by Erica De La O, Jordan Martin and Annie Honebrink-Krieger. Kelly naturally brings a youthfulness to this role that serves her well next to Crawford and Marie's parents (Brandon Ragland and Kateryna Sellars as Dr. and Frau Stahlbaum in this cast). Kelly blends energy and delicacy in her dancing that eminently suggests how Marie's imagination could be fired by Herr Drosselmeyer's magic. She is paired with Ryan Stokes as the Nutcracker in this cast; again, it is good to see Stokes have the opportunity to dance in classical pas de deux, and the two dance well together. This role is also danced by Kristopher Wotjera, Daniel Ruiz and Benjamin Wetzel. Caniparoli's choreography gives the dancers who play both the toys and the “real” characters an opportunity to iterate key sequences in both personas, allowing the audience to enjoy how these dancers create the mechanical and the “true” versions.

Related: Louisville Ballet's 'Nutcracker' Is a Family Production For the Audience and, This Year, the Dancers

Ashley Thursby and Mark Krieger take on the dual roles of Sugar Plum Doll/Fairy and her Cavalier in both worlds. Both Thursby and Krieger are excellent as the dolls. Their attention to detail in the mechanics of how the dolls move, wind down, and stop is delightful (reminding me of a similar sequence in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”), right up to their inelegant removal from the party. These characters come into their own in the second act, and here Krieger demonstrates true cavalier qualities. His partnering is elegant and apparently effortless, and his solos are impressive; his extension is clean and fluid and, again, apparently effortless. Thursby brings a natural elegance to the Sugar Plum Fairy together with a crispness of attitude that serves the classical idiom well. On Sunday afternoon, she seemed tentative at the beginning of the iconic solo which diminished the enjoyment of watching this accomplished dancer in this role. It is to be hoped that the long run will help her ease into this role.

Beyond the appeal of the children in the cast, the set pieces of this ballet in act two are what keep audiences coming back. The Louisville Ballet, Caniparoli, Cazalet, Marshall Magoon (magic and illusion design) and Michael T. Ford's lighting conspire together to create a series of divertissements that delight all ages. Spanish Chocolate, Chinese Tea (and the dogs!), and French Pastilles make their appearance and are reliably charming. Arabian Coffee introduces illusion to the mix, an admittedly unfair advantage in terms of audience enjoyment. Emily Reinking O'Dell and Brandon Ragland are suitably sensuous in this pas de deux. This year's highlight was undeniably the Russian Caviar trio (choreography by William Christensen) danced by Phillip Velinov, Roger Creel and Alex Kingma. From the moment these three exploded onto stage the audience's attention was captivated. This was the most bravura I've seen this variation danced by the Louisville Ballet. Kingma is not listed in the Louisville Ballet program or on their website as a company member. If he was brought in to swell the male corps for this production, we can hope that we'll see more of him in the future.

In an only-in-Louisville nod to local tradition, one of the variations in act two is Madame Derby and her jockeys. Eight young dancers sneak out of Madame Derby's tent-like skirts and create a mini-Derby race, complete with winner. Madame Derby is played by Jonathan Paul, doubling as Grandfather Stahlbaum (Kelsey Thompson is Grandmother) in act one. Once again Harald Uwe Kern embodies Dr. Drosselmeyer in both worlds, investing him with mischief and mystery, Kern's acting and dancing in this role over the years makes me wish that we could see him more frequently on the Louisville Ballet stage.

Kateryna Sellars dances the Rose in this cast, reprising the role from last year. Other Rose's are Christy Corbitt Miller, Natalia Ashikhmina, Helen Daigle, and Erica De La O. Sellars is luminous in this role, ably supported by her multi-colored Flowers—a solid combination of company members and trainees—in the well-loved Waltz of Flowers variation. And it is this variation that brings to an end Marie's dream and she is transported back to her home, with a little help from Drosselmeyer, where the only reminder of the magic is the seemingly innocuous Nutcracker Doll. All over for another year—but it's never too early to be making plans to see “The Nutcracker” the following year.


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