Nutcrackers are like snowflakes - no two are alike. Madison Ballet's '07 production, the professional company's debut, was smooth. But the show I saw last Friday night at Overture Hall hit both high notes and bumps.
Artistic director W. Earle Smith made a brilliant move. Instead of flying in guest principals to do preset versions of the Sugar Plum pas de deux, he cast his own dancers in the leads and swapped out the old plot. In the new version Clara grows up to dance the Snow and Sugar Plum pas with her dream Cavalier. Waiflike Jennifer Tierney was perfect in the expanded part, and replacing the bored little kid Claras who sat through the second act in the sleigh with a consummate ballerina breathed new life into the old opus.
Act I, a Victorian relic in need of a swift creative kick, is an eternal stumbling block, though Friday night's unexplained guest appearance of Madison Police Chief Noble Wray among the parents in the party scene added transient intrigue.
Several choreographic gaps are in need of repair. Clara's stroke of midnight, swirling light nightmare relied too much on running back and forth. "Waltz of the Flowers" was preceded by disconcerting blank space. Parts of the Arabian and Sugar Plum pas were set too far upstage to pack much punch.
But the Madison Chamber Orchestra made the score sparkle, and the ballet was saved by its glittering moments. Avichai Sher showed charisma and chops as the soldier boy in the toy chest in Act I and the Russian soloist in Act II's divertissements. Laura Dunlop, who took over Mad City's best-known ballerina Genevieve Custer-Week's superb Dewdrop solo this year, did justice to that joyful dance.
Smith's got a golden touch for Balanchiney ballet blanc. His Snow scene was scrumptious, and the 16-member pointe corps was tight. Arms undulated in unison in a swany, fast-paced port de bras. Flashy footwork framed Smith's jazzy trademark chugs and failles. Grand jetés swept through the counts, nailing the choreography's neoclassical pulse.
I'd fancy more foot flicking, and a fan, but Erica Felsch brought brio to the Spanish divertissement - something I've clamored for for years. I was delighted, until Felsch slipped. She recovered gracefully, but the floor was like ice the rest of the night. I counted four more skids, three in Felsch's fatal spot. Tierney's timing was flawless in the Sugar Plum pas - she can draw out counts with the best Balanchine dancers. But after tearing a tendon last spring on the Capitol Theater's stage, as Wendy in Madison Ballet's production of Peter Pan, she took no risks. She reined in her arabesques and turned cautious pirouettes on the treacherous stage.
Career-ending injuries are a constant threat on the Overture's abhorrent stage floors. And the audience Friday night got cheated out of Nutcracker's best parts. Ballet can't thrive under these conditions. Financial crisis or not, remodeling is required.