The Charleston Ballet Theatre's unique version of The Nutcracker begins with a Christmas party. A mysterious, and slightly sketchy, guy named Godfather Drosselmeyer (played by ballet master Stephen Gabriel) arrives at the Lowndes' high-ceilinged mansion on East Bay Street with three life-size, dancing dolls and a special gift for his goddaughter Maria — a nutcracker.
That night, Maria has a nightmare starring a big, scary Rat King, who is defeated at the hands of her valiant (and now giant) Nutcracker. She safely hops into her godfather's sleigh (in this Charleston version, a boat) and embarks on a magical journey featuring sugarplum fairies, snowflakes, and hot chocolate from Spain.
I love this ballet with all its far-reaching characters, and most do, which is why I was surprised to discover such a poor turnout at the CBT's recent performance of The Nutcracker this past Friday at the Gaillard. It's one of the few pieces out there that might be called a ballet for the Christmas-loving masses. It's hard to mess up, and the CBT conjured up the necessary nostalgia for someone who hasn't seen Maria dance with sugarplums in ages. That said, the costumes were off at times. In the first scene, the dancers wore appropriate 1865 hoop skirts in rich colors, but the younger girls wore shiny-sleeved dresses in clashing pastels. During the "Waltz of the Flowers," half the tutus were bright teal and the rest a blinding yellow. The flowers lost their cohesiveness, with each dancer's tutu distracting me from the girl beside her.
In Act 2, Mother Ginger made her grand entrance and unleashed a swarm of cutie pies dressed like candy canes dancing in unison from under her giant hoop skirt. I loved how, instead of relying on CBT dancers to carry this number (which was done in other scenes), the children were front and center inspiring laughs. The cheesiness that diluted the ballet in other scenes — like when Drosselmeyer whips out some plastic flowers, which Maria dances with for too long — was absent when the children naturally played to the audience.
The MVP award goes to the ever-present Jennifer Balcerzak Muller, who played Maria. Graceful and effervescent, I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was perfectly at home in her role and unknowingly highlighted some stiffness in the movements of the Snow Queen (Melian Izotova).
I would have loved to see some more challenging technique by all parties. The Russian Trepak (played by Mykhaylo Izotov), noted for wowing the audience, didn't deliver enough jumps for me. The Sugarplum Fairy (Melody Staples) did well, but I would have loved to see some fouettés in place to top off her traveling fouettés, which were perfect. Melissa Weber in "Coffee from Arabia" stood out (she was carried onstage curled inside a rug by Peter Swan!), and the Cavalier (Alexander Collen) had the strongest jumps and movements of the men.
I've seen the CBT execute more challenging choreography, and while no one dropped the ball, another dash of showmanship and elegance to match the mastery of the music by Tchaikovsky could have taken this version over the top.