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Culture news, 01.12.2005 17:07

The Ellie suits a well-executed "Nutcracker"

nutcracker After two years in the beautiful yet ultimately ill-suited Paramount Theatre, the Colorado Ballet's annual presentation of "The Nutcracker" has moved this year to the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.

Even though the choreography by former artistic director Martin Fredmann is largely unchanged, the work looks much more striking and substantial in this ideally suited new theater in the Denver Performing Arts Complex.

Even before the curtain went up Saturday night, the opera house's grandeur combined with attendees milling around in their holiday best created a festive atmosphere, further enhanced by a group of carolers in the lobby - a nice touch.

Besides making the "The Nutcracker" look better, the opera house also makes it sound better. Just getting to hear Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's magical score is reason enough to attend this holiday classic, especially when it can be heard in accommodating acoustics like these.

Also boosting this year's version are new sets and costumes, which the company purchased recently from the San Francisco Ballet, where they were first used in 1986.

Though not particularly unusual or innovative in any way, the Victorian-era trappings by respected designer José Verona are suitably grand, effectively evoking the ballet's fantasy storybook quality.

A highlight is a swan-shaped boat that dreamily carries Clara and the prince skyward as Act 1 comes to a close and then transports them across a fanciful ocean at the beginning of Act 2 to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Fredmann's choreography, which traces its roots, like virtually all permutations of this ballet do, to the original 1892 production at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, is well paced (coming in under two hours including intermission) and capably conveys the story.

If there is a strike against this version, it is the first two divertissments in Act 2 - the Spanish and Arabian dances, which seem a little tired and flat. They could use an injection of energy, humor or, in the case of the Arabian dance, perhaps a little more exoticism.

To its credit, the company has managed to uphold its traditionally strong artistic standards in this production despite its precarious financial condition. It has assembled four rotating casts for the 24 performances of this production, an impressive feat for any company, let alone a regional one.

Saturday evening, two of the company's most-admired principal dancers - Koichi Kubo and Sharon Wehner - looked comfortable and at ease individually and together as they ably handled the lead roles of the Cavalier and Sugar Plum Fairy.

They made sure their grand pas de deux at the end of Act 2 was the high point it should be. Kubo was in especially fine form, making his challenging leaps and pirouettes look easy. And Wehner nicely mirrored the delicacy of the celeste in her solo and dashed off some dazzling fouettés en tournant.

Also deserving note were Shunsuke Amma and John Henry Reid, whose daredevil acrobatics, including electrifying leaps in which they touched their toes to their outstretched hands, drew boisterous cheers from the audience.

Fredmann's version of "The Nutcracker" uses adult company dancers as the two lead children, Clara and Fritz - an inevitably awkward juxtaposition. Jesse Marks and Dana Benton delivered youthful impersonations that were as convincing as could be expected.

Once again, "The Nutcracker" lives up to its reputation as a diverting holiday outing for adults and children alike, and its move to the Caulkins Opera House only adds to its appeal.

Fine arts critic Kyle MacMillan can be reached at 303-820-1675 or

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