Solid, well-danced efforts from area "Nutcracker" performances

As surely as Christmas brings "Nutcracker Ballet" performances across the land, for better or worse, so too, here, do we find two area companies offering this annual favorite, each trying to bring something different and diverting to garner audience attention.

Thus the "Nutcracker" skirmish took place last weekend with the Virginia Regional Ballet in Phi Beta Kappa Hall and the American Youth Ballet, presented by the Community Alliance for the Performing Arts,in the Ferguson Center.

Between them, the basic "Nutcracker" story remains the same, with variations here and there. As always, both delivered solid, well danced and colorful efforts, making them a "draw" when it comes to who does what the same, better or best.

However, this year, there was a defining difference, that being Regional Ballet's use of live music provided by Janna Hymes and the Williamsburg Symphony Orchestra. A major funding effort allowed this costly undertaking to take place and it was an effort well worth the effort.

Without question, live music and dance permit excitement and a spontaneity of movement not possible in recordings. Of course, if the live playing is not up to speed, it can be a disaster. Such was not the case here. Hymes and the WSO offered a spirited rendering of the score, with Hymes firmly and artistically managing movement on stage and the music in the pit. The only drawback was a full pit forced the harp, tympani, drums and celeste onto the edges of the stage, taking space from the dance.

Choreographically, Heidi Robitshek, assisted by Adelle Carpenter, again offered up a lovely "Nutcracker" that was highlighted by guest artists, Abigail Simon (Sugar Plum Fairy) and Zachary Catanzaro (Cavalier), both of whom were polished and poised in their Grand Pas de Deux. Fine showings were also made by Shannon Smith and Karen Fleming in the beautiful snow pas de deux and Arabian dance. Hats off to Amanda Tovey for a notable Klara.

Over in the Ferguson, American Youth Ballet again delivered a polished product that found Ron Boucher, CAPA's founding director, reprising his role as a dancing Drosselmeyer. Hands down, he's the best Drosselmeyer around, his part adding continuity and interest to the scheme of things, in addition to being entertaining.

When it came to excellence in dance, Youth Ballet took the prize for well executed, cohesive dance that was void of individually interpreted movement. Quite assuredly, lots of detailed rehearsal went into this endeavor, with polished, professional looking results.

The many divertissements were clever and colorful, the Russian garnering substantial applause, along with the tiny tots in any and everything they did.

Guest artists turned in gratifying performances, most notably Juliet Doherty and Slawomir Wozniak who were featured in a gracious Snow pas de deux and exotic Arabian. As the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, Amanda de Oliveira and Aaron Smyth displayed solid technique. Oliveira brought grace to her dance and Smyth great strength, athleticism and impressive stage presence.

Sandra Balestracci's choreography, with that of Ghislaine Roux and Lee Gilbaldi-Knight, was superbly suited to the expansive stage, the mood of the music, and the notable talents of the dancers. Adding to the substantial appeal were costumes and sets that brought a sense of opulence to the dance, all of which combined to make this a highly successful, superbly produced "Nutcracker."

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