Madison Ballet's Nutcracker took a leap forward this year. At a time when many American companies are using canned music, or are on hiatus for lack of funds, Madison Ballet is buoyed by the Overture Center for the Arts. It's the company's great fortune to perform in posh Overture Hall with maestro Andrew Sewell and the vibrant Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. And the metamorphosis, from the once unwieldy pre-professional group to the sleek new studio company blended with 12 newly hired young professionals, is artistic director W. Earle Smith's gift to Madison - a pointe corps and soloists any rising midsize city should be delighted with.
Last weekend's Nut '07 wasn't perfect, but there were touches of brilliance in this production. The lush, pastel-lit Snow scene came close to neoclassical perfection. The company's previous pointe corps wasn't up to Smith's swan-y, fast-paced port de bras, but the choreography fit this group pretty much to a T. The grand jetés across the snowy stage sparkled with confidence. Jennifer Tierney, in her third appearance with Madison Ballet, was the ultimate Balanchine Snow Queen Friday night. Her luxuriant, elastic musicality more than made up for one small but visible slip.
Saturday night Tierney swapped roles with Nikki Wilson Hefko, whom I saw in Friday night's very slinky Arabian pas. These polished dancers have such starkly different styles that I almost went twice, to see what each one brought to such polar opposite parts.
Hometown girl gone pro Genevieve Custer Weeks, the Waltz of the Flowers Dewdrop, was at the top of her game, dancing outside the box, finding new nuances in this solo Smith choreographed for her when he redid the holiday ballet in 2004, for Overture's opening season.
But Nut '07 wasn't all glitter. The party scene needs a makeover. The two pro ballerinas cast as this year's Merlitons were a distractingly poor technical match. Brian Cunningham, who partnered the Snow and Arabian pas de deux, needed to relax the stiff smile and funnel some fluidity into his arms and upper back.
The guest principals - former New York City Ballet soloist Michele Gifford as the Sugarplum Fairy and NYCB principal Stephen Hanna as her Cavalier - promised big-city dazzle, and Hanna's pizzazzy cabrioles lived up to the hype. But Gifford, a lithe, technically competent dancer, turned in a disappointingly rote performance.
Dancers drawn from open, countywide auditions, who maintain the community roots of Madison Ballet's Nutcracker, did better. The newly hired professionals' three-week pre-show residency evidently worked magic, perking up Madison Ballet's collective psyche. For once, little Clara (Elena Pérez, in the show I saw) projected presence. The spunky divertissements done by pre-pointe-corps student dancers surprised me after the bland performances of previous years. "Spanish" needs more escuela bolera - you know, fans and flashy footwork - but the corps pulled off the not-quite-right choreography with brio, nonetheless. In "Russian" one plucky dancer practically plotzed during a pirouette, but she recouped with oomph.
A fully professional Nut is a different kind of ballet, and maybe, down the line, that's what we'll get. But for a holiday show in these unsettled times there's something innately satisfying about a community corps that comes through.