Madison Ballet's Nutcracker faced big obstacles this year. In dire economic straits, the organization swapped the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra for a canned soundtrack that felt flat. And for the second year running, Overture Hall's stage floor was booby-trapped with slick spots. To the audience a slip seems like the dancer's fault, which isn't fair. For the record, I saw a flawless pre-performance studio showcase last week. Still, despite onstage setbacks, Madison Ballet, in its third season as a small professional company, turned in a solid holiday performance.
Nutcrackers need cute little kids, and this production had plenty. But artistic director W. Earle Smith's ballets are almost all about the corps de ballet. There are no stars -- just company members, some of whom become soloists on alternate nights. His Nut forgoes guest-principal Sugarplum Fairies; instead of a pre-packaged grand pas de deux, little Clara grows up to dance with the Nutcracker.
In the cast I saw Friday night, those plum roles, plus the "Snow" pas de deux, were done by Laura Dunlop, in her second Madison Ballet season, and Taurean Greene, who's new. Their Snow pas was agile; Dunlop, in white, floated into her lifts. But the pair remained rooted in partnering in Act II. I wish Smith would push his quasi-Sugarplum piece toward a full-blown grand pas with male and female variations, so we could see these dancers open up a little -- though Dunlop did whip off a radiant string of pique / en bote turns at the start of the second act.
The "Waltz of the Flowers" corps looked clean. Dewdrop Megan Horton stood out, wispy, beaming, flaunting elastic, neoclassical lines. "Snow," though, is Smith's pièce de résistance. While the "Flowers" set is busy, the simple Snow scene shows dancers off. The choreography sparkles with Balanchine-based Smith-isms. Smith's port de bras are Swan-y. He tosses in jazzy chugs. He favors a précipité over the more conventional glissade as the takeoff for grand jeté, making the dancers' leaping legs look uncommonly long. His grand allegros sweep luxuriuously through the music, bending the top of the count.
The divertissements advanced this season. Smith's take on the Spanish dance lacks escuela bolera - no rose, no fan, no flicking feet - though soloist Samantha Collen merits mention for both her limber technique and her determined attack despite the dangerous floor. The Arabian pas, by Madison Ballet veterans Nikki Hefko and Bryan Cunningham, sizzled with confidence. And the Russian solo - set on Marguerite Luksik instead of the usual male performer - featured daredevil dancing festooned with crisp cabrioles. No Kasatchok nailed down nationality, but Luksik's bravura was utterly Russian. Along with the Snow corps, she stole the show.