There is no ‘holiday season’ here in North America without large helpings of Nutcracker-frenzy. Baah humbug, Scrooge might have said, even while acknowledging that American ballet companies reputedly earn 40% of their annual revenue from Nutcracker audiences. Pecuniary matters aside, even he might have been converted by the joyous interpretation offered at the Kennedy Opera House last night by the Cincinnati Ballet, under the direction of Victoria Morgan. Her choreography was both deft and delightful, and brought a welcome freshness to this much-loved classic.

Ogulcan Borava (Herr Drosselmeyer) and artists of Cincinnati Ballet © Peter Mueller
Ogulcan Borava (Herr Drosselmeyer) and artists of Cincinnati Ballet
© Peter Mueller

Clara (Sopha Rose Beadie) made lovely use of épaulements, and had a pleasing lightness of movement and ebullient stage presence, which put one in mind, frequently, of Alice in Wonderland. Indeed, Morgan and stage directors Johanna Berstein Wilt and Ogulcan Borova seemed to be tapping into Alice-ish elements in the work, in their fearless embrace of the ‘reality’ of fantasy. The palette was not pastel matchy-matchy but bold, vibrant and cleverly lit (Trad Burns – lighting director – did an extraordinary job, assisting our imagination of an illusion.) The stage was full of oranges and pinks, purples and turquoises, the hot and cold all juxtaposed in an energetic and uninhibited way. To bring this fantasy world to life, Herr Drosselmeyer (Ogulcan Borova himself) swooped airily over the stage and Alice was wildly rotated on a plush stool: good theatrical rigging to gloriously illusory effect. Meanwhile, the normal-sized Christmas tree of the first scene expanded and rose up to fill the backdrop; at the final moment of the scene, its lights were switched on. There was no doubt we were entering wonderland.

Humour flared up throughout, adding quirkiness and idiosyncrasy to the well-known narrative. The rabbit that popped out when the maid took Herr Drosselymeyer’s hat was a nice comic touch; so too was the distinctive drawing of the various juvenile personalities – the crybaby was left with the decapitated Nutcracker, to predictable effect. In the beginning there was a slightly inebriated pastry chef (slightly? make that very definitely), who presented a very wobbly tiered cake to the giddy party-goers. One suspected the cake had a greater purpose and indeed it did, becoming the giant backdrop of the Land of Sweets in Act II, leaning vertiginously over the action – a neat link between worlds of reality and fantasy, and, of course, between the two Acts. So too the chef’s original champagne flute and wooden spoon became oversize props in the Mouse King Battle, the latter indeed effecting the coup de grace of Mouse, whose fake bravura, all vanity, with his mirror and oversize white handkerchief, was ticklish prelude to a death where his leg wouldn’t go down.

There was play, as there often is, with the non-balletic idiom. The mice did a bit of crazy dancing – hip-hop choreographed by Derrek Burbidge. The clockwork doll sketch, complete with mechanical-style travesties of classical ballet, cliché though it is, was still a charm. The cheerleader gingerbread men subtly directed audience reaction in Act II. Well, there isn’t much that is subtle about cheerleading in general, to be sure, but the gingerbread men were kept discreetly up-stage.

Patric Palkens (Snow King) and Maizyalet Velazquez (Snow Queen) © Peter Mueller
Patric Palkens (Snow King) and Maizyalet Velazquez (Snow Queen)
© Peter Mueller
The snow-kingdom was a true winter wonderland – the lace sheers on a purple background of the Victorian home had given way to snowflakes and icicles, with changing blue and green lighting, and the snowflakes in their busy, fluttering patterns threw up heaps of falling snow. Patric Palkens partnered Maizyalet Velazquez as Snow Monarchs; his leaps and her precision of form were notable. The Land of Sweets was updated with cupcakes – fitting in this cupcake –obsessed city. The Waltz of the Flowers was a visual highlight - the costumes alone, thanks to Carrie Robbins, were gorgeous. Its choreography was on the busier end of waltz, for sure, I tend to prefer more lingering rubato and tableaux moments, but swiftness impresses in a very different way, especially in the spirited performance of Sirui Liu, the Rose. The Cotton Candy Cavalier (Cervilio Miguel Amador) did a dazzling succession of turns and achieved impressive elevation in his leaps; Sugar Plum (Chisako Oga) had a compactness of movement that privileged the fast pace of the choreography and its finely-observed details. The national incarnations paraded in all their colours, the Russian trio showing off massive energy in their aerobic folk dancing.

It was a most satisfying evening all told: a spirited re-telling of this seasonal classic.