Kaleidoscoping Choreography, Lucid Dancing in New Haven Ballet’s Nutcracker

The corps de ballet of snowflake dance. (Photo credit: Thomas Giroir)

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It’s Dec. 8th. Thursday night. The last in-studio rehearsal for New Haven Ballet’s The Nutcracker. The white-walled studio is packed and crackles with excitement. Next week Artistic Director Lisa Kim Sanborn and 150-member multi-generational cast will load into New Haven’s Shubert Theater for a four-show run — one they have rehearsed since September.

The Nutcracker is known for its fantastical story, scenery, and costumes. But tonight’s rehearsal is no-frills; the Act II Land of the Sweets cast wears rehearsal clothes. The only sign of sparkle are the noisy new pointe shoes that the dancers are breaking in. They are busy polishing nitty-gritty details for Act II’s whirlwind scenes— clarifying an angle of foot, a degree of head tilt, a formation in space. They run the entire act twice, with different casts building stamina for demanding multi-roles appearances.

The majority of the dancing in Act II is on the shoulders of this corps of teenage dancers, and it’s a responsibility they take seriously. New Haven Ballet’s core mission is as a school for both youth and community dancers; from age nine onward, instruction is professional and rigorous. But this corps de ballet takes on another job here: creating an alternate reality for their audience. Corrina Vazquez, a junior in high school and debuting in her role as the Dew Drop Fairy, describes what an honor it is to perform at the historic Shubert Theater, and notes how important it is to create a “fairy tale vibe” for the hundreds of children who will attend.

The Nutcracker has changed from its first performances in tsarist Russia in 1882, but the heart of the story is still based on writer E.T.A. Hoffman’s Romantic gothic The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The story transports audiences into the 19th century Germanic world of Clara Stahlbaum, and the Christmas visit of her mysterious godparent Drosselmeyer. There are elements of the bizarre. A grandfather clock that stops time. A cut Christmas tree that grows. Most importantly, a toy Nutcracker that comes alive, stabs a seven-headed Mouse King, then whisks Clara to a Land of the Sweets. He turns out to be Drosselmeyer’s nephew, released from a spell.

The transformation of this Grimm’s fairy tale of a story into a light-hearted Christmas tradition is its own curious twist of history.

Lisa Kim Sanborn as The Nutcracker’s director and choreographer does a great job of re-balancing the story’s dark and light elements, while updating its multicultural content. There’s mystery, poignancy, and humor aplenty. Sanborn, who has been choreographing and directing the production since 2013, notes that some choreography has remained stable over the years, while other sections change year to year, depending on casting needs.

A big part of Nutcracker’s appeal is the transcendent score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. At Thursday night’s rehearsal, its familiar strains drift through the crowded room. Teenagers cluster on the sides and line the mirror along the front. Laptops open, they finish homework, sip from water bottles, and read books. A few lead dancers welcome Clara to the Land of the Sweets. A junior in high school, Karli Babineau shepherds an imaginary row of very young angels, already in bed at this hour. Sophomore Juliette Koff fills in for the role of Sugar Plum Fairy, which will be performed at the Shubert by New York City Ballet soloist Sara Adams. Director Sanborn calls out some of the choreography to Koff, who’s learning it on the fly.

Pique, pique — now pirouette, center stage, stop!

Now it’s time for the Land of the Sweets entrances. On a stage-whispered cue from Dew Drop Fairy Vazquez, the entire room lifts like a flock of birds and rushes into the wings, transforming from students and homework into a corps de ballet alighting with military precision.  Hot Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, Trepak, Marzipan Shepherdess, Mademoiselle Choupette and the Flowers crystallize into formation.

Director Sanborn walks among the dancers as they move through the scenes, adjusting an angle here, calling out a cue there. What’s remarkable, and a credit to Sanborn’s directorial style, is the autonomy of this teenage cast; they can keep the scene flowing all on their own.

Of course, this is exactly what happens next week at the Shubert. With many short choreographies, including Hot Chocolate as a flamenco-dancing trio, Coffee as an adagio duet, Tea as a trio wearing Qipao dresses, and Trepak’s dancers in Cossack folk dance-inspired costumes, the young cast lofts Act II with aplomb. The Dew Drop Fairy, danced in Sunday’s performance by Abigeal Austin, leads the Flowers. This ensemble waltz is a highlight of Act II, with kaleidoscoping choreography and lucid dancing by the corps de ballet.

New Haven Ballet’s Act I is also a stunner. The Stahlbaum’s Christmas party, the metaphysical battle between mice and toy soldiers, and the transcendent Waltz of the Snowflakes make a good match to its counterpart Act II.

And the acting is great. Timothy Fountain is spellbinding as Herr Drosselmeyer, and Barbara Van Leeuwen and Jackie Downing are superbly comic in their roles as the dancing Maids of the Stahlbaum family. The Columbine Doll, danced with eerie jointedness by Nicole Vayman in Sunday’s show, is a high point. There is also the warm presence of Clara, played by young dancer Nora Gilo-Tomkins, and all the children and the adult guests.

Part of what makes this act come together effectively is the fluid choreography and staging of Sanborn and Talia Vendetto. Various strands of the story are given thoughtful attention and transition. Here The Doll Dance, often an ensemble, is a tender solo where Clara cares for her broken toy Nutcracker. Herr Drosselmeyer’s elaborately choreographed intrigue sets Clara’s perception of reality upside-down. In one last swashbuckle of cape, he reveals his nephew the Nutcracker, which leads immediately into the ethereal pas de deux of the Snow Queen and King. A fine Waltz of the Snowflakes, complete with falling snow, ends Act I.

Other notable elements in this Nutcracker: extraordinary costumes by Kimberly Salsbury and Catherine Mason, and set design by Martin Marccito and Zach Brown — moving scrims and set pieces, executed with finesse by Stage Manager Lisa Camarata and her production crew.  When spine-tingling things start to happen, when the walls fly away, the clock musically slides sideways, and the tree starts growing, the effect is totally “fairy-tale vibe.”

The New Haven Ballet’s not-for-profit organization was founded in 1985 by Noble Barker. Ruth Barker, who has taught at the school since 1987, trained the School of American Ballet and continues to teach the youth ballet students, as well as directing the community-based Open Division. The School trains three-year-olds through adults, and the new semester starts up on January 8, with a special offer for 3-6-year-olds who want to try ballet for four weeks: it’s time to start training the next generation of angels, mice, fairies, and flowers.