On Christmas Eve, Calgary’s Jubilee Auditorium hosted the Alberta Ballet for their final performance of The Nutcracker this year. To mark the special day, the dancers wished the crowd a Merry Christmas in all the different languages that represent their home countries, a nice personal touch to start off the show. The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra then began playing Tchaikovsky’s unmistakable music and as the lights dimmed, the twinkling tiaras of a dozen or so little girls in princess dresses lit up excited faces all turned toward the stage.

This version of The Nutcracker was choreographed in 2008 by Edmund Stripe, the current artistic director of the School of Alberta Ballet. It aims to be faithful to the original Nutcracker story by E.T.A. Hoffman, set in 19th century Russia. The costumes, decor and characters all play to the story’s eastern European roots, with Tsars donning fur hats, babushkas and a view of the Kremlin painted on the backdrop of the opening act.

Performing alongside the Alberta Ballet are young boys and girls, aspiring dancers, who really give the show its magic. Given simple choreography, they fill the stage and take on important roles such as soldiers and rats. Even in the second act, where the story really allows for the professional dancers to shine in grand pas de deux and trois, the children have an entire segment to themselves. Their smiles and buzzing energy draw in everyone in the room, even those who know nothing about dance, and this is part of what makes The Nutcracker such a well-loved holiday tradition for all.

Klara was danced by Akiko Ishii for this performance and she did an outstanding job. Though much older than Klara in the story, Akiko’s petite frame and girlish acting made her perfect for the role. In this version of The Nutcracker, Klara is really the star dancer and Akiko’s incredible legs, extensions and precision were wonderfully displayed. Her partner, Yukichi Hattori in the roles of Karl and the Nutcracker, complemented her well, but did not blow us away. His acting was also exactly on point, but today he was lacking height in his jumps and confidence in his steps overall.

[Image:3974]David Neal was Drosselmeyer, Klara’s godfather and the one who presents her with the gift of a nutcracker. He was fantastic, having no real dancing role but orchestrating the whole show with flair and transporting us completely into the tale. His presence far overshadowed the Snow Tsarina, danced by Emily Nicholson, who is meant to lead us through the story in the second act. Emily’s smile and elegant arms didn’t match her shaky legs as she hammered across the stage instead of gliding, a problem which could be blamed on her heavy dress.

The pairs in the second act danced well, but not memorably. Applause was short as the Spanish pas de deux seemed to rush into the Arabian pas de trois and the same went for the Chinese and the Russians. The Snowflakes and Flowers were more engaging, but the height diffferences of the dancers was distracting with some women towering over the others, while sadly the patterns in the choreography didn't help. Of note though was Mariko Kondo, dancing seductively at the heart of the Arabian trio. Her stare was mesmerizing and her control impressive as her two male partners lifted her over their head in the splits and quickly slipped her down into a deep dip. She was the undoubted highlight of the second act, regardless of a stumble when she made her first entrance on stage, and thankfully her incredible dancing served to distract us from her partners’ costumes. Some things, like very tall, shirtless men in tiny, white and blue, Speedo-like bottoms, just don’t have their place in a ballet.

Perhaps I’m biased in not being a big fan of newer choreographies when it comes to classical pieces, but I found Edmund Stripe’s version of The Nutcracker disappointingly dull. None of the choreography made me go “wow”, and I can’t say it was the fault of the dancers. The decor was an issue also because although it was very beautiful, it took up a large part of the stage and greatly minimized the available space for the dancers. By pushing the dancers so far downstage it almost broke the fourth wall between audience and performer, something that simply doesn’t work with a story like The Nutcracker where that distance is precisely what allows us to fall into the fantastical story. At the end of the show, I was delighted by the performance of the orchestra that elevated an otherwise lackluster rendition of a Christmas classic.