Not satisfied with the lone “Nutcracker” I saw in New York a few weeks back, and finding myself in Florida, I decided to pay a visit to Miami City Ballet’s “Nut” at the Arsht Center in Miami. (After Christmas, the production moves on to West Palm Beach.) The company, whose founding director was Edward Villella, is now headed by Lourdes López. Both spent their careers at New York City Ballet. And given the company’s strong Balanchine lineage, it’s no surprise that it is Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” that is performed here, albeit, since 2017, with new designs by Isabel Toledo (costumes) and Rubén Toledo (sets).
Though the setting is the same—a snowy mid-nineteenth-century German city—the production has some subtle Miami touches. Both Isabel and Rubén were born in Cuba, as was López. And Miami is a city where bright, bold colors and shapes predominate, so it seems right that the palette should be warmer, more whimsical. The scene may be wintry, but the shapes of the foliage sometimes suggest tropical plants, and the second act features a pineapple throne.
Much is accomplished through Wendall K. Harrington’s projections, as when the Christmas tree in the Stahlbaum’s front parlor grows a little on its own but is then magnified many times over by projections. The pattern in the wallpaper, too, begins to dance and pop, and there is even a spray of fireworks. During the overture, the Stahlbaum home, seen from a distance, looks like a Victorian cutout, and at certain moments an owl (echoing the owl clock in the parlor) flies over the wintry landscape. An angel, too, appears in the night sky at the start of Act II. All of this works quite well, though I admit that I missed the effect of the giant tree growing and growing beyond the dimensions of the stage, a moment that never fails to quicken the breath. There are other little differences: Here, the Drosselmeier figure does not dance with the grandmother, making her head spin; the Harlequin doll in Act I is danced by a man, rather than a woman. The Mother Ginger figure is masked, which is a shame—I always enjoy the antics of the (male) dancer who takes on this role while the kids dance around him.
The good news is that Miami City Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is everything one wants a “Nutcracker” to be. In fact, it gives New York City Ballet a run for its money, mainly because of the qualities for which the company is known: musicality, attack, and a kind of esprit de corps and energy that many associate with Villella, but which the company has retained under López. The tempi taken by the orchestra, under the baton of Gary Sheldon, were noticeably fast, but instead of looking rushed, the dancers seemed energized. (The only moment I would have wished for a slower tempo was in the snow scene, which lost some of its majesty.) Arms were energetic, with a pulse that reached all the way through the fingers, torsos bent to and fro, and the footwork was crisp. Everyone onstage was really dancing.
And because of the strong impression made by the corps, the soloists looked more like part of a whole, rather than like exceptional exemplars of their craft. Which is not to say that they didn’t dance well. From the toy Harlequin and Columbine (Matilda Solis and Andrew Larose)—who did not forget to move like jerky automatons—to Alexander Peters’s enthusiastic lead Candy Cane and Taylor Naturkas’s high-flying Dewdrop, the soloists took advantage of their moment and danced to the fullest, with hunger and zest. (Two small things: the challenging step danced over and over by the lead Marzipan Shepherdess, called a gargouillade and consisting of a jump in which each lower leg traces a little circle in the air, was really more of a half gargouillade. And there were a couple of near-miss collisions in the Waltz of the Flowers. But how the dancers bent and swayed!)
This includes the kids, all beautifully rehearsed and eager. The battle between the toy soldiers and mice has seldom looked more exciting. In the Mother Ginger scene, the little polichinelles performed the tricky choreography of pas de chats, emboités, and jetés entrelacés with total aplomb. The angels, bourréeing under their long Georgian-style dresses, floated across the stage at high speed, with nary a worry that they might bump into one of their sister-angels. Little Marie, Carolina Rodriguez, and her Nutcracker Prince, Diogenes Bonilla Escobar, acted and danced with naturalness and care; Rodriguez was especially careful to always point her toes just so.
The evening I attended (Dec. 23) coincided with the début of Dawn Atkins, a relatively new “principal soloist” in the company, in the role of Sugarplum. She, in turn, was partnered by the Ukrainian dancer Stanislav Olshanskyi, formerly of the National Ballet of Ukraine, who joined Miami City Ballet just over a month ago. Atkins is a tall dancer whose plush arm movements, deep plié, nice turns, and buoyant jump immediately announce that she is in full command of the choreography. She looked happy and relaxed in her solo at the start of the second act, with its pinprick tendus and sprightly pas de chats, and totally fearless in the pas de deux, with its dramatic dives into a downward tilted arabesque. The Balanchine style, so full of risk and élan, is totally new to Olshanskyi. But he acquitted himself well, supporting his ballerina with a gentle smile, lovely soft hands and a relaxed upper body, if, perhaps, catching her a bit too early after her solo turns in arabesque and looking slightly taken aback by the urgency of her arabesques penchées. Olshanskyi carries himself like a prince, with natural grace and a beautiful port de bras. It will be interesting to watch him make his way through the Balanchine ballets, of which Miami City Ballet dances so many.
It was wonderful to see the warmth with which the audience met the dancers’ efforts. I hadn’t really taken note of how blasé New York audiences can be, applauding perfunctorily and rushing off at the end of a performance. Here, cheers and applause erupted throughout the show. People were impressed by what they saw, and they were right to be. The dancers, feeling appreciated, danced even more generously. And in so doing, they brought a little bit of Miami sunshine to “The Nutcracker.”