Since the legendary Fernand Nault first choregraphed this version of The Nutcracker to Tchaikovsky’s enchanting score in 1964, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens have been performing it as a magical ritual of the holiday season. Running from December 12th to 30th at Place des Arts in Montreal, thousands of spectators both young and old will be transported into Clara’s festive dream-world for the first time, fifth time, or as part of an ongoing tradition.

Callye Robinson and the King of Sweets © John Hall
Callye Robinson and the King of Sweets
© John Hall

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Nutcracker for Les Grands Ballets and it seems no detail has been spared in making this year’s production an unforgettable event. You couldn’t tell that the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier was actually under repair, as the entire theater was filled with festive spirit and decoration. What I love most about attending The Nutcracker is seeing all the young boys and girls – aspiring dancers or not – completely overwhelmed by the splendor of the show. It is so rare to see such young faces at the ballet and this is what makes Les Grands Ballets’ version so uplifting. For many it is their first or most memorable introduction to dance, and it keeps the art form alive and relevant for generations to come. Not only do children and youth fill the seats of the theater, they also fill the stage, voluntarily taking on most of the roles that complete the cast of 165 characters.

A show of lights makes snow seem to fall lightly on stage as we anticipate the first chord of music. The décor is intricate and majestic, with golds and blues and sparkly whites making up a winter wonderland before our eyes. As a familiar tune begins to sound from the orchestra, the excited energy from all the smiles in the room caused my friend and I to sit up, moving to the edge of our seats where we stayed for the entire ballet. After the décor, the rich costumes are equally stunning. The velvet gowns and dapper suits make you dream of grand holiday galas around a warm fire, instead of around a cold TV. The adults are elegant, spinning and twirling gracefully. The children are even more impressive, some of them looking no older than 6 or 7 yet standing tall, pointing their toes and getting every step right. After the theatrical first scene, where dancers from the company had us oohing and laughing at their wonderfully believable impersonation of toys, the show really begins when the giant Christmas tree grows up to the ceiling and beyond, and our hero, the Nutcracker, comes to life. A tense battle between toy soldiers and mice is both comical, as a nurse rat on a bicycle ambulance carries off her wounded, and dramatic, as the Nutcracker’s quick spins and high jumps don’t seem to be enough to win the fight. Young Clara saves the night, taking out the Rat King with a throw of her magical slipper, and the Nutcracker-turned-Prince thanks her with a grand show.

Stephen Satterfield as the Nutcracker © Damien Siqueiros
Stephen Satterfield as the Nutcracker
© Damien Siqueiros

In the Land of Snow, Mahomi Endoh and Edi Blloshmi dance as tonight’s Snow Queen and Cavalier. A fantastic pair, the partnering is beautiful and their aura is full of mystique. Some turns could have been more stable and some legs should have been higher, but the chemistry of this duo took over the presentation. The Snowflakes that followed really set the bar high for the rest. I had forgotten how quick their choreography is and they executed it as professionals, even though I’m certain for some this was their first contract with a large company. As white snow began to fall on stage, it was incredible how these dancers moved easily and unfazed. I admit, I cringed that someone might slip on the confetti, but obviously there was no need to worry. With all the Snowflakes, the Snow Queen and her Cavalier dancing together under the flurries, this was easily the most visually stunning moment of the show.

Next, Vanessa Montoya and Chen Sheng took the stage as Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Montoya’s smile and presence were second only to her dancing. She completely stole the show, which is hard to do as part of such a large, colorful and fantastic production. The King of Candyland is always a crowd favourite, bringing on full-bellied laughs while smoothing the transitions. Having Clara and the Prince always present on stage to help those less familiar with ballet etiquette know when to applaud is a fun detail that really adds to the family-friendly atmosphere. Every act that followed is worthy of honorable mention, but for the sake of length and keeping the mystery, I suggest attending a performance and guarantee it won’t be regretted. Again though, Montoya deserves all my praise for making a flawless Sugar Plum Fairy this year. Her perfectly controlled turns, endless extensions and delicate footwork had me yearning to dance along with her. Above all, her arms moved with such finesse it was difficult to tear my eyes away whenever she was on stage.

The Nutcracker © John Hall
The Nutcracker
© John Hall

After 50 years of repeating the same choreography, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens have proven that some classics simply cannot be outdone. The Nutcracker is more than just an annual show in this city, it is also a tradition that goes beyond the stage. The Nutcracker Christmas market and Fund for Children are but two ways Les Grands Ballets have extended the show into a community event. By the looks of this year’s success, I am certain we have many more years of The Nutcracker’s Christmas magic to look forward to, bringing Montréalers together for charitable causes and to enjoy the beauty of dance.