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Review: After 7 Years, 'The Brown-Forman Nutcracker' Still Has It

Company Dancer Kateryna Sellers (Snowflake) The Brown-Forman Nutcracker Louisville Ballet photo by Sam English
Sam English

This Thursday saw the opening performance of the Louisville Ballet’s second, and final, weekend of their annual production of "The Brown-Forman Nutcracker." Now seven years into this iteration of the holiday favorite, kudos must go to the storage and maintenance staff whose work has ensured that sets and costumes have not lost their luster.

And, of course, the illusionary work still impresses as well.

The first act of any “Nutcracker” has to engage the proliferation of children that flock to the performances, and this production certainly does so. Each year, it seems that there is more attention paid to the on-stage children’s characters when they’re not actually dancing (or making mischief – Fritz (Ben Workman.)) There is more playing with the gifts, interacting with each other and, as a result, more parental interaction, giving the adult party-goers more to do as a consequence.

This year the specialty gifts from Herr Drosselmeyer (Mark Krieger) were especially impressive. Erica De La O and new company member John Brewer were utterly believable as the mechanical, angular, Sugar Plum Doll and her Cavalier, as was Rob Morrow’s The Nutcracker. The sharpness of all their actions was a charming movement tromp de l’oeill.

Krieger’s Drosselmeyer is appropriately commanding and whimsical in equal measure as he masterminds (almost) all of the magic to which we’re treated -- the toys in his shop during the prologue seem to have more free will than his other illusions! Krieger’s acting, as always, makes this largely non-dance role compelling. One can quite understand why Fritz, Marie (Annie Honnebrink) and the other children delight in his creations.

After the party, of course, the real shenanigans begin. And the battle between the rats and the toy soldiers went down with aplomb. Particularly impressive was the group of soldiers who marched with the Cossack Bear (Jayla Ransom) -- it looked like they were the youngest platoon, and their marching was delightfully crisp and unison. Some of the rats’ gimmicks did look a little tired at the performance I saw, and it was challenging to track all of the gimmicks owing to crowded stage pictures.

The transformation from Marie's house to the Land of the Snow is always, well, transformational. And the transformation of Morrow from toy Nutcracker to Marie's dream is also a true transformation. This is the first time I’ve seen him dance this role, and it was a joy to see him dance a traditional classical role. 

All of this is prologue to the specialty divertissements in the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Again, De La O and Brewer effected their transformation from toys to fantastic vision, bringing a lushness to Caniparoli’s choreography which has sly nods to the figures they performed in Act One. Brewer’s partnering of De La O was elegant and discreet; the spectacular lifts and fish dives were accomplished with a brio that, again, energized this pas de deux.

There are six national divertissements in this act, each with their own quality. Arabian Coffee, with Marshall Magoon’s illusions, is always a stand out and Ashley Thursby and Ryan Stokes bring former years’ experience to its execution. Christensen’s spectacular choreography for Russian Caviar (Phillip Velinov, Sanjay Saverimuttu, Benjamin Wetzel) is always a show-stopper, and this year was no exception. Also an audience favorite is Madame Derby (Joseph Cianciulli) together with the miniature jockeys.

Spanish Chocolate introduced this section with flair, danced by Natalie Nguyen, Shelby Shenkman, Darren McIntyre and Brandon Ragland. Roger Creel’s Chinese Tea with Guard Dogs in support brings reliable chuckles. This year’s French Pastilles (Leigh Anne Albrechta, Lexa Daniels, Erin Langston Evans and Emily Reinking O’Dell) were beautifully precise, with sharp footwork and cleanly morphed the floor patterns from square to diagonal, lines to circles, etc.

Natalia Ashikhmina’s The Rose had a slightly cool affect this year. Her accompanying Flowers, drawn from the trainee company, always bring a delightful softness to the color palette of this act, with tutus in hues from dusky pink to luscious peach. Once Drosselmeyer recalls all of the specialty acts back for one last taste of this international smorgasbord, all is left is for Marie to return to her sleep at home, and rediscover her Nutcracker doll, safe.

The production runs for four more performances this weekend. If you have not yet made the Louisville Ballet’s production part of your holiday tradition – you should check it out. The young of heart of all ages will be transported for a couple of hours on a cold December day.