Improved Cleveland Ballet Shines in ‘The Nutcracker’ [REVIEW]

Cleveland Ballet
The Nutcracker
Playhouse Square – Connor Palace Theatre
Cleveland, OH
December 3-5, 2021

By Steve Sucato

Cleveland’s premier The Nutcracker production by the Cleveland Ballet returned once again to Playhouse Square December 3-5 after a yearlong hiatus because of the global pandemic. The annual production that regularly plays to sold-out audiences, was performed for the first time at the larger Connor Palace Theatre. In doing so, the production got a bit of a revamp especially in its set design; a hodgepodge of painted drop curtains and video projections culled together to fit the new theater space. While the set design remains a work-in-progress, audiences this year also got a good look at the company’s new dancer compliment, arguably the finest overall the company has put on stage to date.

For those familiar with Cleveland Ballet artistic director Gladisa Guadalupe’s The Nutcracker production that premiered in 2017, much of its structure remained the same in this revamped version. Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Guadalupe’s choreography, after Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s 1892 original, had a few twists. She traded the late 1800s setting and German family the Stahlbaum’s for the early 1900s and characters named after Monte Carlo royals from the House of Grimaldi. She also slightly modified Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic original score for the ballet.

The two-act ballet on Saturday, December 4 opened on guests making their way to the Grimaldi’s house for a lavish Christmas Eve party. Inside the home, the ballet’s protagonist Caroline (Marla Minadeo), her parents (Heather Carson and Covington Pearson), her mischievous brother Albert (Nicola Marchionni), and house staff all greeted an array of party guests as they arrived. And as with many productions of the familiar Nutcracker tale, the ballet’s party scene played out with the arrival of Uncle Drosselmeyer (Eduardo Permuy) and his apprentice (Bruno Palheta) heralding a gift-giving frenzy where toys representative of the action in the ballet to come later were handed out, including a Nutcracker doll given to Caroline.

Minadeo, reprising the role of Caroline, had a youthful, coy charm to her performance that enchanted the audience. With a radiant smile and a welcoming demeanor, she embodied the character.

Rather than making mechanical dolls come to life, in this production, Drosselmeyer’s magic was in storytelling and sparking the imaginations of the party guests. The scene overall was full of movement with nary a dull moment in the action. The staging was detailed with several delightful characterizations as interactions such as the 1995 Clueless movie “as if” looks given by Caroline to Albert when he chose to tease her, and the endearing performance of Lily Sargent as Antonia, the nanny who had a schoolgirl crush on Drosselmeyer.  

The scene ended per usual with Caroline, after her family was asleep, returning to the parlor to retrieve her Nutcracker doll and then falling asleep with it on a lounge chair. There she began a magical dream of armies of toy soldiers and mice and her venturing off to distant lands. 

The ballet’s battle scene came next. While including all the perfunctory characters and action of a now life-size Nutcracker doll leading an army of toy soldiers from under the Christmas tree in a battle against an army of mice bent on doing Caroline harm, the timid scene failed to capture the nightmarish fear Caroline would most likely have felt. Kudos however to having an empowered heroine slay the mouse king herself, rather than Nutcracker (a.k.a. Drosselmeyer’s apprentice).

The ballet’s first act concluded with the “Land of Snow” scene in which Caroline and her now transformed into human form Prince assumed the traditional roles of Snow Queen and King. They led a corps of a dozen snow maidens costumed in frosty blue, in lovely swirling and gathering formations across the stage. Then a group of children costumed as angels accompanied a representation of a hot air balloon to carry off Caroline and the Prince on an adventure as the curtain closed.

Differing from most traditional The Nutcracker productions where Caroline and her Prince arrive in a “Land of Sweets” to have representatives of various confections/lands dance for them, Guadalupe used the balloon to have the couple instead visit “Magic Lands” themselves to be entertained there. Their tour began in Spain with dancers Nashializ Gomez and Emmanuel Martirosyan in Spanish-inspired costume performing choreography a la Petipa and Ivanov’s original infused with Spanish folk dance movement. The pair, rather than dancing to the “Chocolate” music from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker score, instead performed to the “Spanish Dance: Allegro non-troppo” from Tchaikovsky’s score for the ballet Swan Lake. Their impactful performance was lively and delivered with Spanish flair.

Trips to “Arabia,” where dancer Lauren Stenroos was carried onstage in the splits atop two male dancers and then was twisted and bent into various positions during the sultry dance; “China,” where Marchionni performed a solo accompanied by a Chinese parade dragon, and “Russia,” where Guadalupe combined a high-flying, crowd-pleasing, and folkloric “Trepak,” performed with bravura by Palheta, Emmanuel Tavares and E. Martirosyan, with a dance of “Matryoshka Dolls” to the music usually used for “Dance of the mirlitons,” followed.

After skipping the “Mother Ginger” section, the ballet’s finest group dance, the “Waltz of the Flowers,” came next. Led by radiant Madison Campbell as “Dewdrop,” and dancing in front of a vividly colorful garden backdrop, a corps of eight female dancers in differently colored tulle dresses performed beautifully in musical and wonderfully patterned choreography.

Zachary Catazaro and Kaela Ku in the “Grand Pas de Deux”. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Ballet.

The ballet climaxed with the “Grand Pas de Deux” performed on December 4 by Canton-native Zachary Catazaro and Tokyo-born Kaela Ku. For his first time back performing as a member of a United States-based dance company since his controversial departure from New York City Ballet in 2018, Catazaro, again showed his star quality in the role of the King (Cavalier role) opposite young up and comer Ku as Queen (Sugar Plum Fairy role), in the ballet’s “Grand Pas de Deux.” Perhaps not yet at pre-pandemic performing level, Catazaro was nonetheless the consummate entertainer, taking charge of the pas de deux and exuding a bold, confident stage presence that turned attention away from a few minor hiccups the couple had in their partnered sequences. Catazaro ate up stage space in big leaping jumps and rapid turns, offering up a high level of dancing not heretofore seen at Cleveland Ballet. For her part, the petite Ku danced with spritely energy, and together the pair elicited spirited praise from the audience.    

An equally triumphant performance in the “Grand Pas de Deux” on December 5 was turned in by Narek Martirosyan as King and Albina Ghazaryan as the Queen. The confident, technically solid, veteran performers from Armenia brought to the “Grand Pas de Deux” the dance pedigree and stage presence of proper principal dancers. Ghazaryan, in a white and gold tutu with a sparkling tiara, shone in her delicate footwork, graceful carriage, and mesmerizing movement quality. Both she and N. Martirosyan performed their individual solo variations with adroit skill and together were the picture of regality.

The production concluded with Caroline back at home awakening from her sleep wondering like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz if what she experienced was a dream or really happened.

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.

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