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Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2012

Children Lost In Their Imaginations

Michael Pink’s The Nutcracker

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In a faraway land in the days when nuts were sold in shells, a magician named Drosselmeyer made a soldier-shaped voodoo doll with teeth. He presented this totem to young Clara at her wealthy family’s Christmas feast.  Her hyperactive brother Fritz broke the thing, but the wizard restored it with glitter.  Everyone went to bed.  The doll glowed weirdly, the hands of the clock spun crazily.  The doll came alive, battled vengeful rats, died and returned as Clara’s sister’s bashful boyfriend Karl.  Clara, Fritz, her sister Marie and Karl were now the size of dolls.  They flew in a train to a sunshine world where they joyfully danced with other dolls as children do when lost in their imaginations.

The Milwaukee Ballet’s 2012 production of The Nutcracker opened on the precise date of arrival 10 years ago of its warm-hearted choreographer Michael Pink.  On opening night, each audience member at the Marcus Center was given an arm’s length of pink ribbon to wave in his honor.  Cued by executive director Dennis Buehler and two dancers, the full house cheered the Ballet’s fearless leader as he took the stage to welcome us.  He pointed out that the adult dancers in the show have played in productions of The Nutcracker since they were as young as the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy students – 140 of them – in this year’s show.  It was a reminder that The Nutcracker is about childhood and that Pink’s production keeps the kids in the audience solidly in mind.

Pink is a theatrical wizard.  I greatly respect his work. He’s made this company something special in the world.  His version of The Nutcracker is characteristically thoughtful, good-humored and free of pretension, a well-crafted audio-visual treat.  It is not his greatest piece of choreography, although the “Arabian Dance” and the “Snow Pas de Deux” that precedes the Snow Scene in Act One are among my favorite passages in all his work.

It’s a lovely, complicated production with a huge cast, a full orchestra and one of history’s greatest ballet scores.  I was lucky enough to catch an electrifying performance last year at which everything gelled.  For whatever reason, I was less spellbound this year, so the uncritical presentation of boys in love with swords, the normative celebration of powerful men and feather light women and the uniformed family servants left me wishing Pink would update these images.

Like almost every production of The Nutcracker, Pink has choreographed the climactic second act “Grand Pas de Deux” as a display of the virtuoso tricks ballet dancers spend their careers perfecting and many audiences expect—the sequential pirouettes and leaps, the difficult lifts and balances.  It’s marvelous to see great dancers do these things, but Tchaikovsky’s music is at its most piercingly human in the final “adagio” while the dancing is at its most technical.  Pink’s choreography is more human than most.  Still, he makes the innovative Sugar Plum Fairy music a showcase for difficult point work while the music asks for something more imaginative.

The great dancer Marc Petrocci is also celebrating his tenth season and his genius was on full display.  Pink created the crucial role of Fritz for him.  Like Clara, beautifully danced on opening night by Nicole Teague, Fritz is part of every scene.  Petrocci will dance only four performances this year as he passes the role on to the younger Mengjun Chen and Barry Molina.

As Karl, the nutcracker-made-flesh, and his paramour Marie, David Hovhannisyan and Valerie Martin were exquisite. Their “Snow Pas de Deux” was the best I’ve seen. They left the audience gasping.  Susan Gartell and Isaac Sharratt were superb in the languorous “Arabian Dance.”  Courtney Kramer’s precision and sharp line was prefect for the Snow Queen in another of Pink’s best scenes. Barry Molina was a nicely floppy Jack-in-the Box.  Janel Meindersee and Alexandre Ferreira were fun to watch in the “Spanish Dance.”  As Drosselmeyer, Ryan Martin threw glitter like the pro he is.  Most notably, it was a great delight to see Yuki Clark again dancing with full authority after an injury that kept her offstage for a year.