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Review: Brown-Forman Nutcracker Looks As Fresh As Ever

Sam English

It always feels like the holiday season is officially underway once I’ve seen “The Nutcracker.” This oh-so familiar holiday tradition is as endemic to the season as “A Christmas Carol” or, in recent years, “Santaland Diaries” or the plethora of popular songs that mark this time of year. It’s a rite of passage into the holidays. And the Louisville Ballet does not disappoint.

Now in its ninth year, this Brown-Forman-sponsored production looks as fresh as it did when it premiered. Purely practically the Ballet is to be complimented on how it is storing and maintaining the extensive sets and costumes.

Choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky gave future generations of choreographers and designers a great challenge as the story moves from a middle-class Christmas party, to a dream battle between the party gifts, to a fantastical snow-inspired vista, to an imaginary Kingdom of Sweets back to a suggestion of the original house, all hung together by Marie’s imagination.

At Sunday’s matinee, Marie was danced by Shelby Shenkman making her debut in this role. Shenkman brings a wide-eyed wonder to the delights of the season and a lightness to her steps that suggests an eager almost-teen. When brother Fritz (Ben Workman) chases her with his stuffed Rat, he’s not just an annoying younger brother. Marie clearly dislikes rats, which sets her up perfectly for the battle between the rats and the soldiers – it’s a big deal for her to pitch in.

In a production this big, with more performances than any other ballet in the season, each year many dancers take on new roles. Kristopher Wotjera danced Her Drosselmeyer at this performance. Wotjera brings his sense of humor and whimsy to this role, as he shows off his magical creations to the children. This Drosselmeyer has less patience with Fritz, Marie is clearly his favorite, and Act Two unfolds under his benevolent conjurations almost as a personal gift to her.

The gifts, of course figure in both acts. Marie’s Act One gift is the impressive Nutcracker doll (Roger Creel), as well as the Sugar Plum and Cavalier Dolls (Jordan Martin and Phillip Velinov, respectively) to the delight of the guests. And in Act Two they become fully-realized in the fantasy land.

The doll roles demand both an obvious technique as well as a lightness of interpretation that Martin hasn’t yet mastered; it felt like she was “commenting” on being a doll. Velinov, reprising his role, finds that balance. Creel, in a mask as the doll, is suitably dynamic and aggressive, allowing for a subtle transition into Marie’s dream prince.

This is Martin’s first year as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and she has the precision and line to grow into this role. At Sunday’s matinee there were a couple of stumbles in footwork and an atypical hesitance in fully-filling the choreography, as if she is still working on integrating steps, music, and partner to successfully embrace the Grand Pas de Deux in Act Two.

The traditional divertissements of Act Two are danced by company members, and some trainees, and space prevents listing all of the dancers. Nonetheless the various ensembles undertake their variations with aplomb to the delight of the audience.

The trainee company is worked hard and fully integrated into this expansive production. They are most successful in the Waltz of the Flowers, together with The Rose, danced elegantly by Kateryna Sellars, reprising a role she’s danced for several years; it is clear she is both at ease in this performance and embracing the elegance of the choreography.

The trainees are less successful in the lengthy and more-challenging choreography of the Snowflakes in the Land of the Snow. In past years this corps of dancers has been strengthened by full company members, anchoring the less-experienced ones in the precision and technique of this sequence. The effort of these young women is too palpable for the illusive delicacy this sequence demands.

The Nutcracker” continues through December 23, with various casts. Audiences interested in the history of this production can also catch up on that at the Frazier Museum’s complementary exhibit through January 7.