As ballets go, The Nutcracker is something like a variety show at Alexander III’s House of Vaudeville: It has very little story but an endlessly diverting lineup of different kinds of dance, most notably in the second act.
Which surely helps account for the ballet’s popularity in the United States, beginning in the World War II years, but then taking off after George Balanchine’s introduction of the work to TV audiences in the 1950s. It’s become not only a staple of the holiday season but a family affair, with thousands of very young children every year taking part in mountings of this ballet across the country.
That tends to make the focus for the audience less on the dance and more on the spectacle, but Boca Ballet Theatre’s annual Thanksgiving weekend presentations of The Nutcracker always aim high, and quality dancing is reliably present every time.
This year, two dancers from American Ballet Theatre, Catherine Hurlin and Jose Sebastian, were on hand as the special guests, dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. They took part in a production at Olympic Heights High School that had the same familiar look and sets troupe director Dan Guin has used for years, but this year he has freshened up the choreography somewhat, giving the children in the first act some more varied and interesting business to do.
And the second act character dances also had some new moves, particularly in the “Arabian Dance,” which was performed by troupe member Michaella Yentz with another guest, Paul Tillman of Ballet Arkansas. This was as close to sensual as this ballet gets, with Yentz up on Tillman’s shoulders and scooting down his other side, like a cat carefully exiting a tree. Although on Sunday afternoon she slipped briefly while doing another part of the dance, she made a strong impression with her acrobatic style.
There was impressive dancing, too, from Justin Metcalf-Burton, also until recently affiliated with Ballet Arkansas, in the leaps and stretches of the trepak, ably partnered by trainees Kevin Campbell and Maxwell Guin, and faculty member Shannon Smith made an exciting lead Spanish dancer along with trainees Noemi Alvarez-Luevano, Jillian Carpenter and Carina Castaneda.
Clara was danced by Olivia Beers, and Fritz by Tyler Trussell. Director Guin seems always able to find very graceful girls to dance Clara, and Beers was no exception, performing not just with lightness and ease, but persuasive presence as a young person on the cusp of an adventure. She also made a good partner her Nutcracker Prince, Ballet Arkansas’s Toby Lewellen. Trussell was delightful, impish and funny, as he made trouble for everyone on stage with high-spirited pranks.
The ensemble dancing — mice, soldiers, snowflakes, angels and flowers — was remarkably accomplished for such young people, and that’s one of the things that makes this modest teaching company’s programs so worthwhile. This is the kind of show for which the audience is ready to award A for effort even if it falls well short. But it does not fall short; here were dozens of student dancers, performing with precision and delicacy particularly in the “Waltz of the Flowers,” but always well enough to be memorable and satisfying.
That’s not a small achievement; it would be easy for this group to just get close enough and declare victory in a proven crowd-pleaser like The Nutcracker, but one gets a real sense watching these kids that standards here are high and that the rewards from the kind of positive esprit de corps that mass achievement generates are substantial.
Hurlin was a lovely Sugar Plum Fairy whose beautiful footwork was as pleasurable to watch as her rapid turns and her effortless leaps into position in Sebastian’s arms. In his variation, Sebastian gave his audience all the athleticism we want to see in strong male ballet dancers plus the wonderfully light landings of a gymnast. They made an excellent pair, and their pas de deux was smooth and faultless.