Arts and Culture

The Christmas season must definitely be upon us, as Louisville Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” has arrived. This Saturday brought the annual tradition to the Whitney Theatre at the Kentucky Center.

Part of the delight of an annual tradition is in recognizing the familiar; equally, as dancers are rotated through the myriad roles, and children age out of the younger roles, it’s intriguing to discover the shifts and changes that develop over the years.

This iteration of “The Nutcracker” has been part of Louisville Ballet’s repertoire since 2009, when its remake was supported by Brown-Forman — a gift that is memorialized in the street names highlighted on the pre-performance curtain.

At the performance on Saturday evening, Jordan Martin again danced the role of Marie, the Stahlbaum’s daughter around whom the fantastic dream journey revolves.

It’s the first time I’ve seen her in this role; she is delightful as the young girl at the party, and blossoms into the pas de deux with the Nutcracker (Ryan Stokes) in her dream. Martin has a lovely long line that appears effortless as she soars through the lifts supported, with equally apparent effortlessness, by Stokes.

Stokes, who has danced the role before, comes into his own as the dream Nutcracker, dancing with elegance and charm. But his toy Nutcracker on Saturday evening did not have the needed sharpness and precision of previous years.

Act One is where there are the most changes. Herr Drosselmeier, in this performance, is played by Mark Krieger. While Krieger’s acting skills fill the mostly pantomimic action of the character with an authenticity that is refreshing, it is disappointing not to see him in a dance role, and Drosselmeier as a younger man is a less-than-comfortable dynamic in the storyline. Jonathan Paul reprises his role as Grandfather, suggesting age through smart physical choices, while Felicity Audet’s Grandmother is a more stereotypical “old” characterization.

This year’s children appear to have a lot more “business” during the party scene — more than just the typical shenanigans of Fritz (Anna Lauren Benton), as they play with their gifts and risk their parents’ ire for misbehavior. As always, it is good to see the youngest members of the cast take to the Whitney stage with confidence, although at times, their circle dance seemed a bit scrambling. The guests’ dance, led by Mr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum (Phillip Velinov and Emily Reinking O’Dell), was briskly and sharply executed, with the men’s footwork particularly precise.

The battle between the soldiers and rats after hours played more upon the comedic aspects of this post-party encounter and wasn’t as scary as in past years, and the lines between the goodies and baddies were less clearly drawn.

As always, the transformation from Marie’s living room into the Land of the Snow is an impressive act finale. This year’s Snowflakes are drawn entirely from the trainee company. During the Saturday evening performance, it felt like they were playing catchup with the music for much of their variation; the elegant floor patterns passed in a blur (and an unfortunate thud as one dancer slipped), and speed substituted for precision in the footwork.

Arguably the highlights of any “Nutcracker” are the Act Two variations in the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Kateryna Sellars is a cool and sophisticated Sugar Plum Fairy, ably supported by her Cavalier, Brandon Ragland. Their pas de deux brought enthusiastic and almost continuous applause for the intricate lifts and fish dives cleanly executed throughout.

Marie is treated to a whirl of enticements in a series of set pieces including Spanish Chocolate, French Pastilles, and a Louisville-only favorite Madame Derby and her Jockeys, all of which are reliably charming. This year Chinese Tea is danced by Justin Hogan, whose swirling elevation almost took back the stage from the Guard Dogs who always steal this scene.

To mention Russian Caviar is almost unfair to the other dancers, as Christensen’s choreography is designed to be a show-stopper which, in the capable trio of Roger Creel, Alex Kingma and Phillip Velinov, it is. The other unfair advantage lies in the illusions of the Arabian Coffee variation. Christy Corbitt Miller seemed a little tentative suspended mid-air, but she and Benjamin Wetzel embraced the sensuous sensibility of this variation once they were on terra firma.

Abandoning the soubrette-ish characteristics of Mrs. Stahlbaum, O’Dell reappears as the Rose in Act Two, in an elegant contrast to her Act One persona. Here, the trainees as Flowers are much more at ease with choreography and tempo. The Louisville Orchestra is under the baton, as usual, of Tara Simoncic, and this year’s “Nutcracker” is delivered at a brisk tempo, releasing the audience in well under two hours.

Louisville Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” utilizes multiple casts rotating through the many characters and variations in its 10-day run. Audiences will see different dancers at various performances, which run through Dec. 20.

(Image by Sam English/Louisville Ballet)