This classic Christmas ballet returns to Philadelphia for another season of holiday pageantry. Since 1968 the Pennsylvania Ballet has been performing The Nutcracker, drawing countless families and performing arts fans. If you have the chance to see this year's show, you won't be disappointed. The sights and sounds of the dazzling dancers, eye-catching costumes, vivid sets, and phenomenal orchestral performance will make you eager to take your seat again after intermission. Having been there, we're here to tell you all about it. Keep reading for more a sneak peek of this ballet performance.
The lights dim, the curtains have yet to lift, and we are privy to several minutes of musical prowess that introduces us to the Nutcracker House, the home of Stahlbaum family. The curtain raises and we become voyeurs, peering through one window after another, catching glimpses of various scenes in the bustling home. The scene shifts inside and we see the Stahlbaum children, Marie and Fritz, peeking through a keyhole, taking in the grandeur of the Christmas tree in the ballroom next door, visible to the audience through a sheer screen.
The screen lifts, and guests begin to arrive. The adults greet each other warmly, as do the children. Everyone's dressed to impress. They dance happily, children on one side, adults on the other, until the toy maker, Herr Drosselmeier arrives bearing gifts. To Marie, he gives the precious nutcracker doll. Fritz becomes jealous and breaks the doll, only for the toy maker to step in and offer a healing hand. The night draws to a close. When the guests have left and everyone has gone to bed, Marie heads back to the ballroom to check on her nutcracker. She's satisfied he's fine and falls asleep. (Now, this is where the story really begins.) All of a sudden, Marie's bed glides across the stage and we know she has begun her dream, a dream that will unfold before our eyes.
Dancers: The opening scene piques our interest with cheerful dancing one would expect to see at a holiday party, and in between the children play leapfrog and tug of war with charisma. When we come to the fighting scene between the mice and toy soldiers, the mice add a bit of humor with some free style dancing (think fist bumping and flossing). The life-size wind-up Harlequin and Columbine dancers that the toy maker surprises us with move with precise staccato, perfectly embodying the gestures one would see in a mechanical doll. In the closing scene of Act I, the Snowflakes chassé and jeté with the lightness of delicate snow flurries.
Act II brings the Candy Canes, which manage to literally jump through hoops while expertly dancing their way across he stage, followed by a jovial Mother Ginger with a surprise brood hiding under her skirt. What's more, the partnering between the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier in Act II's pas de deux is a sight to behold. While the line-up of dancers changes depending on the specific show you attend, you're sure to have a similarly wonderful experience.
Costumes: Feathers, sequins, and tulle, oh my! Costume design Judanna Lynn runs the gamut. No detail has been overlooked. From the opening scene, we see ladies in elegant dresses and men in evening attire, donning rich hues and winter velours. As the ballet progresses we see the mice soldiers in armor cladding, wearing helmets topped with cheese (incidentally, they use their tails in place of swords to fight the toy soldiers) and the Mouse King with a bejeweled crown atop his seven heads.
The Nutcracker himself appears to have been pulled in from nearby Christmas Village and made to come to life. The Angels' floor-length dresses give the illusion that they are gliding instead of walking across the stage. And who can forget the exotic Arabian costume for Coffee, complete with finger cymbals. Traditional ballerina costumes, incorporating white, gold, silver, and pastels are not lacking either, such as worn by the Snowflakes, the Dewdrop, Flowers, and Sugarplum Fairy.
Music: The combination of Tchaikovsky sounds and Balanchine choreography, delighted my ears as much as my eyes. The show I attended was conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron, who will be the conductor for many of the performances. The Emmy-awarded Philadelphia Boys Choir also lend their voices. The orchestra, complete with violins, harps, trumpets, flutes, clarinets, percussion, and more, is perfectly in sync with the dancers, a wonderful complement to the visual display, and an amazing performance in its own right. For instance, when the tree nearly doubles in size and the Nutcracker comes to life, trumpets and drums play and the music crescendos, mirroring the moment.
Set Design: The first set we see is the brick facade of the two-story Nutcracker House, with scenes in every window, lit up one at a time. As we venture further inside, we come to the room where the Stahlbaum's are holding their holiday party. The Christmas tree, perfectly trimmed, is on display in front of a wall of windows with snow on each pane, behind which is a full moon. In the room, garland hangs from every ceiling beam, and in the corner, we see a grandfather clock with an decorative owl perched atop. Later, a snow scene contrasts pristine white against a dark night. Then in Act II, we come to the Land of Sweets, where the stage is set with images of cupcakes and sweets, the room supported by candy cane columns. Marie and Fritz sit on a throne of cake and watch as all the dancers perform for them.
Setting: We can't forget location! Designated as a national historic landmark, the Academy of Music in the heart of Center City has been a venue for audiences since 1857. Designed as an opera house, it seems as if any seat in the house is a good one. Look around and you're surrounded by elegance, reds and golds abound. Scan the room and be awed by Greek-style columns, four elegant balcony levels, and golden statues. Then look up to glimpse a glowing, four-tiered chandelier at the center of a breathtaking mural that Michelangelo would have been proud of.
And there's so much more. We won't give it all away! So don't wait, buy your tickets today! Make a Center City day out of it, and head to LOVE Park's Christmas Village or Dickens Village in Macy's. Check us out on Facebook and let us know how it goes!
Lead photo from the Pennsylvania Ballet on Facebook. All other photos courtesy of the author.