by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
December 15 & 16
Those of us who love ballet never tire of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker and look forward to seeing it performed every Christmas season. We're fortunate, in Seattle, to have the brilliant staging of George Balanchine's Nutcracker performed each year with tremendous style and perfection by the Pacific Northwest Ballet - a world-class company dancing world-class choreography in a world-class production.
But we're also lucky to have another Nutcracker in town - the version that the Cornish Preparatory Dance Company presents annually using a cast of children performing the choreography of their teachers from the Cornish College of the Arts Preparatory Dance program. There are some volunteer adults and a professional Cavalier to round out the cast - but the children and young adults from Cornish carry 90% of this enchanting program.
You might think a school production would be a recital, or that it would offer simple highlights of the ballet; that it would interest only enthusiastic parents and adoring relatives. I thought the same when I attended opening night to see my dance buddy (the seven-year-old) make her debut as a mouse. I expected to be charmed - you'd have to be Ebenezer Scrooge not to love kids in costumes doing their best for Mom and Dad. But I was completely surprised to be as entertained and intrigued as I was, not only by 130 adorable kids and beautiful young dancers in gorgeous costumes, but by the cleverness of the production.
The Cornish Nutcracker has choreography that manages many levels of development and talent, as well as narrative subtleties that make E.T.A. Hoffman's edgy tale a touch less creepy and a bit more optimistic. It also demonstrates an impressive level of professionalism on the part of every age of student - from the tiniest dancer who jumps out of a dollhouse to the pre-college ballerinas in leading roles. The first night I attended I was amazed and charmed all at once. By the second night I was recovered from my astonishment and could look more closely at how the faculty and directors at Cornish worked with their students to produce a beguiling version of this beloved ballet.
In the Cornish interpretation, for instance, Drosselmeyer is a not the mysterious and intimidating guest who comes with his robotic wind-up dolls and his strange nutcracker - a weird and somewhat ugly gift for a little girl, when you think about it. Instead, he's a cheerful guy in a corny cape who performs magic tricks, like your favorite uncle. Yes, there are dancing dolls, and a little troop of marching soldiers, but this Drosselmeyer, as played by Leonard Su, has a trustworthy air, as though the nutcracker is a good joke, and Clara, played by the lovely Kohana Whitney, is always in good hands, even when the Mouse Queen (yes, a queen - she even has long eyelashes) confronts the Nutcracker under a giant Christmas tree.
We ballet lovers are so accustomed to seeing dancers at the peak of their development that we don't often get to see how those prima ballerinas and cavaliers progress through training. In the Cornish Nutcracker the whole arc of progress is laid before the viewer. In Act I, for instance, faculty choreographer Vanesa Wylie formed a group of non-professional adults, pre-primary students, and demi-pointe dancers from eight to fifteen years old into a party scene so lively and accessible that the audience could have joined in. Wylie used folk dance - circles, reels, do-se-dos - to conjure up a joyful community of friends and neighbors that looked spontaneous and natural. When Drosselmeyer opens a box to release his dancing dolls, four toy soldiers shuffle out with their heads down, form a line, and then march in place to the music, turning and saluting in sync. Though the steps were basic, the effect was pleasing because unison movement is so satisfying to the eye. Later, in the battle scene, a gaggle of little girls in shiny gray mouse-pajamas and mouse-hats race around in organized chaos, rolling, jumping, doing angel stands, and dragging each other on and off the stage. At the same time, high-stepping soldiers in march formation herd them back and forth and into the wings. Wylie fashioned a vocabulary of movement for the mice that absorbed missteps while creating a highly effective hurly-burly that contrasted dramatically with the military patterns of the older students playing soldiers.
In the Second Act, when Clara is escorted to the Magic Kingdom by Drosselmeyer (not the prince - no subtextual romance here) she meets the charming inhabitants who will entertain her - Spanish, Arabian, Russian, and Chinese dancers, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and dancing Mirlitons (a mirliton is either a flute or a pastry - Cornish has dancers playing flutes; PNB has them as marzipan in cupcake tutus). Act II is where we see what the senior dancers can do, and how the faculty choreographers integrate demi-point dancers with the soloists who display various levels of the pointe work that dominates professional companies.
One of the most impressive examples, in an act with many wonderful dances, was the Waltz of the Flowers, in which demi-point flowers in swirling skirts enter and leave in pirouetting couples and trios while the lead flower (Grace Tong on opening night, Grace Thompson on the 16th, both aptly named) dances her variations on pointe. Both dancers were able to exhibit strength, agility and, yes, grace. Faculty choreographer Leigh-Ann Cohen-Hafford deftly allowed dancers to sail into the wings and back again, creating a sense of amplitude while giving them time to regroup for the next section. In this dance and in the Dance of the Snowflakes, also choreographed by Cohen-Hafford, the dances ended in beautiful tableaux. The flowers' upward-bending arms at the end of their waltz were particularly lovely, like petals floating in the air.
Heid Gans, faculty choreographer for the Arabian dance, fashioned what was, for me, a far more pleasing dance than those I've seen to the same music in professional companies. Rather than the solo tour de force of the Balanchine version, that causes the soloist to show every sinew while executing unlovely 'oriental' moves, this soloist is accompanied by six dancers in red chiffon tunics whose movements suggest flickering fire, while the central dancer describes wide circles around the center ending in strong, angular poses. On opening night the lead dancer was Laila Rosen, who performed her circular dance with a perfect profile and still shoulders, creating such drama that she reminded me of silent film stars like Theda Bara or Gloria Swanson. Rachel Su, on the 16th, danced with such confidence it was as if she were actually an Arabian (of the Nutcracker variety).
There were so many other delightful and inventive moments in this production that I wish I could mention them all - but the famous Mother Ginger dance, in which children dash out from under Mother Ginger's enormous skirt, is one of the highlights of the ballet. In the Cornish iteration, Mother Ginger is a chef whose skirt is a white table with a red-checkered tablecloth, played with animated humor by Savanna Milton. Faculty choreographer Christine Juarez has four little chefs tumble out from beneath her skirt/table and dash around helping to bake a cake. Once again the audience is treated to a demonstration of how very young dancers can follow music, execute steps, and develop the discipline to make a fairly complex dance a success.
Watching the Cornish Nutcracker was like watching two things at once: a wonderfully traditional, yet reimagined version of Nutcracker, and the progression of dance development from the age of five to eighteen. At the intermission Program Director and faculty choreographer Steve Casteel invited graduating seniors to tell the audience what they planned to do after graduation. All are going to college, one is accepted at Yale, one is attending NYU's Tisch School of Dance and another is going to the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance. While I doubt that all those little girls in mouse costumes will persist in ballet training until they're dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy or the Arabian lead, clearly the journey from mouse to soldier to demi-pointe flower to Sugar Plum Fairy is a process of building strength and coordination, developing an ear for music, following instructions, learning discipline, and experiencing the value of practice and persistence.
That so many young people could, with their teachers, pull off a professional, fully realized version of a full-length ballet is an awe-inspiring feat. For those of us who love dance and like to think about how dancers develop, no greater example is available in Seattle than the Cornish Nutcracker, which has far more delights than I can report here. Though the performances for 2017 are now over, make a note to yourself to find out when Cornish is doing their Nutcracker in early December 2018 and come see this terrific production next year. You'll love it, and you'll learn a lot about how children learn a difficult art, and how choreographers use their students' limitations and gifts to create clever, inventive ballet.
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