In Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s renowned ballet, “The Nutcracker,” the shifty-yet-kind Herr Drosselmeyer gives the blue-eyed, pure Clara Silberhaus a nutcracker toy for Christmas. That evening, from the comfort of dreamland, Clara explores a wonderland of wintery curiosities with Drosselmeyer as her guide. From the moment Drosselmeyer enters her family’s extravagant home, Clara’s cushioned life becomes more exciting and more magical.
Mikko Nissinen, choreographer of this year’s rendition of Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” may have followed the script too closely — the magic of the Nutcracker only comes into sight when Drosselmeyer steps onstage.
Boston Ballet’s 47th year presenting this holiday tradition, an homage to the one time of the year a material object can come alive in a child’s mind, doesn’t vary much from the last 46 years of interpretations. The Sugar Plum Fairy is blonde, thin and elegant, with a toothpaste-ad smile and a flawless pirouette. The Silberhaus family is angelic in their empire-waist dresses and high-collared coats. The costumes glitter, the sets transform and sparkling artificial snow falls from the ceilings. Everything is as it should be and has been.
The first act of Friday’s opening night performance of “The Nutcracker” threw a bone to the students of Boston Ballet School, as the stage was crowded with children. Audience members smiled the way anyone smiles at a kid cousin’s school play, with an “Aww, isn’t that sweet?” Uncomfortably sophomoric, the opening dances only burst into amazing Technicolor with the arrival of Drosselmeyer, performed Friday evening by French dancer Yury Yanowsky, a Boston Ballet veteran of over twenty years.
Yanowksy smiled and leapt with the expressive style of a silent-movie actor, exuding charisma and charm. He arrived at the Silberhaus residence with a handful of presents, including a hopping harlequin and a mechanical ballerina, performed by Ricardo Santos and Ji Young Chae, respectively. Both dancers stayed true to the inspiration, flopping like rag dolls or ticking like automatons. Chae, in particular, showed remarkable promise with a bold, precise style.
The most enjoyable moments came with the alterations — the dancing grandparents, the Rat King pulling a toothpick sword from an abandoned appetizer, the rat minions fighting over giant plush cupcakes, a stuffed bunny comforting a humiliated gingerbread man. The battle between the rats and the toy soldiers, though pandering to the under-10 crowd, was a refreshing moment of comic relief, a bridge between a tiresome scene of 17th century British aristocracy and a mystical fantasy snowscape.
In that snowscape, we meet the regency of snow, and all hail Queen Lia Cirio. Cirio, a Pennsylvania native who has spent 10 years with Boston Ballet Company, flutters en pointe, spins into flurries and melts down the back of her King. Completely transfixed on the two lovebirds, we fail to notice the disappearing Christmas tree and the emergence of a birch forest.
Surprisingly enough, the Nutcracker and Sugar Plum Fairy, the Oberon and Titania of their own season of magical forest, don’t hold the audience quite as well. Both performers are remarkable dancers — Ashley Ellis, the fairy of Friday evening, holds a perfect posture underneath all her chiffon, one porcelain leg reaching for the clouds without a tremble. She’s missing a little darkness, though, something a little less wholesome. Juxtaposed with the mysterious Drosselmeyer, Ellis fades into the blizzard behind her.
The supporting dancers stole Act Two, in particular the Russian and Arabian dancers in the Great Hall of the Nutcracker King. In the Arabian Dance, the surprisingly seductive duet between Kathleen Breen Combes and Lasha Khozashvili threw tradition out the window, pushing the barrier between ballet and modern dance in a mesmerizing way. The chemistry between Khozashvili and Combes was the Dionysian element I was craving, spoiled by brooding contemporary ballet swirling with tragedy and elusiveness.
The rest of the second act was droll and listless, with the exception of the Arabian duet and the electrifying solo by Jeffrey Cirio — Lia’s brother — in the Russian Dance. He leapt effortlessly, invoking amazed gasps from the audience. It must be in the Cirio genes.
Or, it could just be the magic of the season.
“The Nutcracker” will be running at the Boston Opera House through Dec. 31st.