Madison Ballet presents a “Nutcracker,” sweet and savory

Madison Ballet presents a “Nutcracker,” sweet and savory
Some joyful snowflakes in Madison Ballet's "The Nutcracker"

In a run that began on December 13 (and continues through December 27), Madison Ballet has been touting a bigger and better version of a production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker to celebrate ten years of this version, and ten years in Overture Hall. Not having seen any previous versions, I can’t say for sure to what degree their claims are true—but having seen it Sunday afternoon, I can attest that it is a version that would warm and brighten any holiday season.

Ultimately this is a production in which the whole is greater still than the sum of its considerable parts, starting with the choreography and direction of W. Earle Smith. Add in delightful set designs by Joseph Varga, stimulating costumes by Tracey Lyons and the scintillating and spot-on playing of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra under Andrew Sewell, and it was not just an afternoon well spent, but one that will linger as a memory for many Christmases to come.

Smith is doing double duty by dancing as well, as the original Drosselmeyer, Sam White, was injured a week or so before opening night. One interesting change in the opening act is that at the Christmas Eve party at Stahlbaum’s, the guests are not all German relatives, but represent the ethnicities that reappear in various character dances in Act II, including Chinese, Russian and Spanish. It gives opportunities to vary the look of Act I, and fits in with the conceit that what happens after the party in young Clara’s dream was planted by the events and people at the party.

It is also a production that features a transformation to an adult Clara following the battle between the forces of the Nutcracker prince and the Rat King’s minions, and she is used to dance the music of Sugar Plum Fairy early in Act II. In Sunday’s performance (and again on December 26), Marguerite Luksik did the honors with assured grace. Her able Prince was Jason Gomez, and he paired well with Luksik in both the end of Act I and the great pas de deux of the second act.

Each act had a standout sequence, first the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” in Act I, where the lighting of Kenneth Ferencek added subtly beauties to a corps de ballet that gave joy in movement and expression to the fluttering flakes. Even more breathtaking was the “Waltz of the Flowers”; against a backdrop and side panel curtains of ebullient flowers, the corps was garbed in a variety of pastel skirts of utter delicacy. Shannon Quirk had the lead as Dewdrop.

Children are used as much as possible, and that high point came in the Mother Ginger scene—she (Sean Tikkun) on stilts with a girth wide enough to house no fewer than fourteen of the cutest and most energetic urchins on stage anywhere. They nearly stole the curtain call moments as well.

But one of the most lasting memories wasn’t on stage at all. Although I’ve seen a number of great Nutcrackers, going back to Boston Ballet in the late 1970s and American Ballet Theater on tour in Los Angeles in 1993, it has been a number of years since I’ve seen a live version. Frankly, I had forgotten how many young folks come to experience this special holiday magic. In the row in front of me, a girl of five or six bounced happily in her seat during the opening bars of the overture—and was safely in her mother’s arms when the rats overran the stage. But I suspect she’ll may be back more than once as the years go by … and I don’t think I’ll wait so long either. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Madison!

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