Ahhh, the Nutcracker suite! A timeless musical tale that has enamored western audiences for more than a century. For many, this ballet is a holiday tradition, synonymous with the mystical joy of Christmas. Each year countless revelers flock to its many performances, intent on reliving the magic that never ceases to capture its viewers. Married couples of 40 and 50 years sit hand in hand, letting the music waft over them, contently taking in the visions and emotions of this enchanting performance, one that they have attended together every year since their romance was still young and blossoming. Children of all ages sit enthralled by the sights and sounds of dancing fairies, princes and warriors, and armies of mischievous mice set to timeless music. The colorful sets and costumes are breathtaking to say the least. This is an experience that no one should miss, and it defines the spirit of the holidays like nothing else ever has.
The ballet wordlessly tells the tale of a young girl, Clara, daughter of a wealthy couple who are celebrating the holidays with friends and family. The story was set to music in 1892 by the brilliant and immortal Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. From then on the story has changed from time to time but the beauty of its music and dance lives on. Clara’s mysterious Godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer (devilishly portrayed here by veteran Larry VanDeventer), joins the festivities bringing gifts of wonder for all the children. For Clara however, he brings an extra special present, a wooden nutcracker in full soldier uniform. And as night falls the ethereal adventures begin.
On December 14th I attended a midday performance of the suite put on by the Southwest Virginia Ballet Company at the Roanoke Civic Center, and they did not disappoint. The theatre itself is a large, spacious area, tinted with hues of blue and red that encourages the viewer to sit back, relax, and prepare to enjoy. Performing to a packed house, the cast of over a hundred young dancers gracefully imparted the power and precision of a well rehearsed production, giving the large audience all that they had come for. The opening music sets the mood with light, playful upper register playing by the orchestra. We are brought smoothly into Clara’s home where the celebration has begun. Humor and excitement fill the air as parents and children dance gaily in anticipation of Christmas. A young dancer shines here and throughout, the graceful Annelise Ivy Straw, who plays Clara, is an elegant, light-footed dancer who sweeps brilliantly across the stage, drawing all eyes to her with her shining beauty and precision. Her agility and allure alone are enough to make attendance worthwhile.
As night falls and everyone is sleeping peacefully Clara awakens into a world of magic. She is assaulted by an army of mice in a flurry of spectacular dancing, when the Nutcracker she received from her Godfather comes to the rescue, now as large as a man and ready to defend her. Here Tchaikovsky continues to set the tone of the overture, with the battle music lying strongly in the orchestra’s upper range. The scene ends with a surge of powerful music as the Nutcracker slays the evil mouse king.
The Nutcracker then transforms into a handsome prince and takes Clara to a world of wonder, one of fairies and queens, of snowflakes and sweets, the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Bryan Skates plays the Nutcracker/Prince and he dances with certainty and control for the entirety of his performance. Brian is the epitome of the male ballet dancer, imbued with all the strength and charm necessary for the part. As the story progresses we meet the Sugar Plum fairy herself, who proclaims that Clara shall have the place of honor at the upcoming feast.
All the inhabitants of the land dance for Clara and for us, including a succession of ethnic dances, including Spanish, Chinese, and Russian romps that delight the audience. In this performance the young men portraying the Russian dancers cavorted with a special energy that made them by far the most fun to watch. Finally we get dances from the Fairy herself and her cavalier, which are perhaps the most truly eloquent of the whole show. Then, at last, Clara in a spell of drowsiness perceives the fantasy world around her melting away, and with one final goodbye to her prince, she finds herself sleeping safely at home. Has she been asleep the entire time? Or has her Godfather sent her on a fantastic journey through a Narnia-esque world of mythical creatures and true romance?
Some other notable performances include the highly professional movements of Becky Munson as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the powerful dancing of William Hoppe, her cavalier. Also deserving of praise are the youngest dancers, ranging in age from 10 to 18. These young performers not only exude cuteness, but they are brimming with talent, making for an excellent array of fairies, candies, reindeer, and mice. These budding dancers help to bring the true spirit of the Nutcracker suite to the show.
Something must be said for the youthful nature of the Southwest Virginia Ballet Company. They are a regional company, committed to helping dancers of all ages from multiple studios in the area to produce professional quality work in a variety of dance areas. Their mission is admirable as they provide educational programs and free professional training to inspire Virginia’s young people and bring them into the wonderful world of music, dance, and theatre.
Overall the showing of the Nutcracker at the Roanoke Civic Center was everything it should have been. The magic of the evening was totally present, and the classic nature of this Christmas favorite was exactly what we the audience were looking for. The power of the season was captured in full and everyone left feeling a little warmer and a little more ready for Christmas. In fact, the atmosphere was so pleasant and comfortable that on Saturday’s performance it inspired a marriage proposal at the end of the show, one that has made the news all over the state as a happy tale of holiday love. For anyone who has not seen The Nutcracker performed at holiday time, it is a must see. And for all of us who love to see it every year let us thank the young talents of the Southwest Virginia Ballet for providing us with that cozy, uplifting feeling we have come to hope for from this ageless classic.