Not all that long ago, Ballet Florida had established a tradition of an elaborate and beautiful production of The Nutcracker that audiences here looked forward to each Christmas season.
That company is long gone, and along with it the Marie Hale version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, which had a wonderful bit of stage business at the end with Marie and The Nutcracker Prince disappearing at the end in a sleigh. Since then, lovers of tradition and this work have seen the Miami City Ballet production, which this year has been completely redone and will come to the Kravis a few days after Christmas.
But this year, another production with roots in a smaller theater has brought a production to the Kravis Center: Ballet Palm Beach, the Palm Beach Gardens-based dance school and troupe that has been getting bigger and better each year, in part because its founder, Colleen Smith, has made a point of creating interesting and original ballets for her young charges to bring to life.
Getting the opportunity to be at the Kravis led Smith to rethink her production, returning to the E.T.A. Hoffmann fairy tale that is the source of the story and recasting the dances to take advantage of a much larger stage than the Eissey Campus Theatre, where her Nutcracker has been seen in the days after Thanksgiving. For this debut week of the Ballet Palm Beach Nutcracker, the four performances moved to the first week of December; I was there for the final performance Dec. 3.
Two production aspects above all define this Nutcracker, which it should be said at the outset is delightful, engaging and is always the case with Smith, surprisingly sophisticated considering that so much of what she does has to involve children. And that’s the first thing: Smith has a fertile and vivid imagination, and she comes up with good dancing and charming stagecraft at all times.
The second important thing about this Nutcracker is its star, Lily Ojea Loveland. She has always been an excellent dancer, and for close to 10 years she has been giving back to the company where she was trained, anchoring its story ballets and enabling Ballet Palm Beach to do more than just its educational mission. In this Nutcracker, she is in her element, able to dance locally on a large stage in front of a 2,100-seat house, and it gave her performance a kind of radiance and fulfillment that was plain to see and feel.
In this version, Loveland dances Marie in both acts, which works beautifully not least because this mother of two young children looks youthful enough to pull it off but because it helps her get across the message of Marie’s first entry into the world of adulthood and real romance. Deftly supported by Steven Melendez of the New York Theatre Ballet, Loveland missed not a step of an elaborate and difficult series of dance moves that had every leap, fish dive and pirouette it needed to be a showcase for her as well as engaging retelling of this classic story. She was a perfect joy to watch.
Melendez was an expert partner but he also had a fine variation of his own; he is light on his feet and his long, lean frame gives him a sense of ebullience that makes him a natural stage star. Tyveze Littlejohn, who danced the lead in Ballet Palm Beach’s Gatsby, was a rock-like partner for a wonderfully lithe Madeleine Miller in the Arabian dance, and underneath a great-looking costume (credited to a four-person team of Paige Sleva, Revelle Milligan, and Lisa and Karen Roraff), a swaggering Mouse King.
Smith’s understanding of children and her feel for how they shine on stage was especially clear to see in the work of the mice during the battle scene with the toy soldiers. These mice were rambunctious kids, always trying something mischievous; they were as wiggly as the soldiers were crisp. While some productions have more menacing rodents, these were more like Disney cartoons, and it was thoroughly charming.
Similarly cute business came with the Chinese dance, which featured an impressive Aaron Melendrez dancing and waving two swords, and children dancing with a gorgeous paper dragon. Smith also had two of Mother Ginger’s children refuse to return underneath her capacious dress at the end of the dance, dashing offstage on their own in impudent but cheering style.
There were also good solo contributions from Reinhard von Rabenau of the Minnesota Ballet in a powerful Trepak, Danielle Glynn as an elegant Dew Drop Fairy, and Brittany Bonefas as a strong lead Mirliton. Ensemble dancing revealed Smith’s skill at corps discipline, with the Snowflakes (led by Miller) and Flowers giving the Act II proceedings a feeling of warm formality.
Sean McLelland’s set was relatively spare but most effective, with an evocative snowy forest and a big moon in the sky making a lovely transition from the Stahlbaum dining room. Everything, especially the costumes, looked fresh and new, and the whole production was intelligently lit by Chris Pennington.
This was a distinctive Nutcracker that embodied all the strengths of a canny choreographer and a lead dancer who has long deserved to be better-known. Like all Ballet Palm Beach productions, it uses all of its dancers, from the tiniest to the special guests, effectively and smartly, and stands fair to be a repeat favorite at the holidays from audiences well outside its usual attendees.