'Nutcracker' offered a pleasant holiday outing

With more than 100 “Nutcrackers” under my writing belt, I can say that the Tchaikovsky score is colorful, much of it beautiful and lyrical. And the dance is always designed to offer pleasure.

I can also say that, locally, with rare exception, the story of Clara, the Nutcracker prince and the Land of the Sweets doesn’t choreographically vary much from year to year. It’s what it is and was again this year during Virginia Regional Ballet’s showing under the artistic direction of Heidi Robitshek, with assistance from Adelle Carpenter, Robitshek’s partner in starting the company.

I suppose my anticipation this year was the production’s location: the Ferguson Center. With Phi Beta Kappa Hall no longer in play, Ferguson was the only suitable alternative. While the PBK stage space and seating were intimate, but limited, the Ferguson is vast on both accounts. So, it was of interest to see how the transfer worked.

Of positive note was Ferguson’s sound system which is superior to PBK’s and allowed the recorded music to be clearly and fully heard. Maybe that was why the audience chatter that always occurs during the overture was notably less.

Also positive to see was how well the scenery from the Bolshoi Theater worked in the new space. The scenery is getting a tad old now, but it still provided the story’s colorful background.

It was also good to see the dance breathe. In PBK, dancers tended to cluster, marring dance design. During Sunday’s matinee, the lines were mostly clearly delineated, which was very satisfying. The extra space also allowed more notice of the need for tightening up movement of youngsters who, too often, seemed to march to their own music. Most “Nutcrackers” allow young students to shine; that’s a given. But, built-in cuteness aside, dance discipline is important from tiny tots on up. I’ve seen it in other companies and know it can be done and should be done here. There’s room and need for polish.

Also apparent was the need for Regional to rethink how dancers take bows. For example, people rightly applauded after divertissement dances; then, as the applause faded, in some cases, dancers took more bows, jump starting more applause. Sometimes several times. It was awkward. More care also needs to be directed toward stage exits. Some dancers attempted cohesion of style, while others didn’t.

Awkward, too, was the curtain call (as they always are). After the final bows were taken, the applause naturally ended. But, Robitshek traditionally brings flowers to the stage at the end, causing a confused audience to start applauding again — or not. Thus, on Sunday, she just got to center stage as the curtain came down.

Dance-wise, the highlights were the norm. Clara was delightfully danced by Reese Didion whose pointe work was finely and gracefully done. Karen Fleming and guest artist Shannon Smith were an elegant Snow Queen and King. The Chinese and the Russian dances were quite popular, as was the exotic Arabian of Ainsley Carpenter and Smith.

The show stopper, as always, was the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, here danced by Nanako Yamamoto and Journy Wilkes-Davis, guests from the American Repertory Ballet. They were an absolutely perfect pair. His tall stature and her smaller one allowed him to lift her to impressive heights with dazzling results. He was generously gentle in his support role, as well as dynamic in his solo athletic leaps, turns and jumps. She defined grace and charm with her exquisite lines and virtuoso skills.

The matinee “Nutcracker” substantially filled seats in the hall and seemed to prompt a happy frame of mind. Nit-picky comments aside, Robitshek’s “Nutcracker” did what it has done since she started offering it back in 1978 — provided a pleasant outing geared to the goodwill of the holiday season.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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