Excellent dancing for an enchanting tale.
Madison Ballet is marking a decade of residence at Overture Center with its 2014 production of The Nutcracker, and Saturday evening's performance revealed some changes in both choreography and costumes. Unchanged are the lavish sets, solid dancing and excellent accompaniment by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Sewell.
Every ballet company has a slightly different take on E.T.A. Hoffmann's Christmas story. The Stahlbaums have invited guests from around the world to their opulent home for a Christmas party. Young Clara (Tia Wenkman, a good little dancer and actress) is given a nutcracker by her mysterious, cape swirling Uncle Drosselmeyer (artistic director and choreographer W. Earle Smith, replacing an injured Sam White).
After the party, Clara checks on her doll and falls asleep. Her nutcracker prince (Jason Gomez) and his soldiers battle legions of rodents before she dreams that she's a young woman (Marguerite Luksik) whisked off to an enchanted garden by her prince. They stop to dance and fall in love in snowy woods; once in the garden, dancers representing the homelands of the party guests entertain the pair.
Luksik always delights as the Sugarplum Fairy. Petit allegro is her forte because she's swift and precise but she can also fill the musical phrases with grand extensions and regal port de bras. Gomez is a dashing and capable partner who showcases her nicely, but he needed to bring more excitement and confidence to his solo work.
Costume designers Tracey Lyons and Karen Brown-Larimore have created several excellent new costumes, and Smith has tinkered a bit with choreography, particularly in the Spanish and Mirliton variations. This year's Spanish variation was danced by Andrew Erickson and Jackson Warring (a stellar soldier doll in Act I) instead of the traditional pas de deux, and the dainty Mirliton solo is now a trio.
A minor complaint: Some of the formations weren't as crisp as in previous years. I'm not quibbling about the tiny and excitable garden attendants; it was the corps de ballet who weren't as sparkly as usual in the snow scene. There were also some clunky sounding pointe shoes that rivaled Tchaikovsky's sumptuous score for attention.
Shannon Quirk dazzles again as the Dewdrop in the "Waltz of the Flowers" and makes this very difficult solo look easy. She is alternating with Luksik as Clara/Sugarplum Fairy, so audiences will be guaranteed excellent dancing no matter which cast they see. Madison Ballet's The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 27 in Overture Hall.