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Emerging Arts Critics Programme

A Christmas Reverie

The Nutcracker By Sabrina Papas
  • Jillian Vanstone in The Nutcracker / Photo by Alexandar Antonijevic
  • Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker / Photo by Bruce Zinger

Performed annually by The National Ballet of Canada, The Nutcracker invites adults and children of all ages into a mystical holiday landscape. With his dynamic choreography, James Kudelka enchants audiences, incorporating the whimsical with the traditional. This year’s opening night performance on December 10, at the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts, was expectedly exquisite.

Based on The Nutcracker and the King of the Mice, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s children’s story, The Nutcracker tells the classic tale of sister and brother, Marie (played by Sophie Alexander) and Misha (Simon Adamson De Luca), entering a dream-universe of Christmas magic.

The curtain opens onto the first act, in the barn of Marie and Misha’s family estate, revealing Peter, the stable boy and a friend of the two children, played by Skylar Campbell. From this first appearance, Campbell emanated a childlike quality, which perfectly suited the role and the overall whimsy of the performance. He showed impeccable precision and control in his movements from the beginning to the end, through each fouetté turn and grand jeté.

The stage soon fills with the corps de ballet, cast as various families, on the eve of Christmas. The sets and costumes, designed by Santo Loquasto, display an elaborate representation of nineteenth century Russia. The eccentric Uncle Nikolai (Robert Stephen) elevates the magnificence of the set with his arrival, bringing along with him a multitude of surprises, including a pair of dancing Bears. Stephen, incredibly light on his feet, exuded ease in all of his jumps and articulated the joints in his feet as he landed with poise. The female and male bear, portrayed by Calley Skalnik and Larkin Miller, delight with their intentional clumsiness. Despite their short appearance in the performance, they leave a lasting impression. Following their dance, Uncle Nikolai produces gifts for all the children, giving Marie a nutcracker soldier. Multiple tableaux occur simultaneously, filling the stage with action, as each member of the corps de ballet engages with the scene, even while stationary.  

As Marie and Misha drift asleep, they enter a world in which their toys have come to life – including the Nutcracker, who has grown and now resembles Peter. The pas de trois, which follows before the end of the first act, between the Snow Queen (Alexandra MacDonald) and her Icicles (Brent Parolin and Nan Wang), was especially thrilling to witness. In this scene, the three dancers seamlessly mirror their movements, and this effect carries into the ensemble of Snow Maidens, played by various artists of the Ballet. The eighteen Snow Maidens accurately timed each turn and extension of the leg in unison, creating a beautiful image.

In Act II, the Sugar Plum Fairy emerges from her enormous, intricate Fabergé-style egg; the graceful Jillian Vanstone danced the part with complete elegance. In her pink and gold brocade costume, she appears as if she has been plucked from a childhood music box. She begins to move precisely to the rhythm of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score (conducted by Paul Hoskins), with quick, meticulous movements of her feet. Each time she retired to the ornate egg, Vanstone left the audience wishing for more of her mastery.

The cast of characters that lives in the Palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy contributes to the playfulness of the performance. The Lambs, played by students of the Associates Program from Canada’s National Ballet School, add a particular charm to the performance with their youthfulness. Also of note, the Waiters, portrayed by Eric Beckham, Jimmy Coleman, Larkin Miller and Eric da Silva, demonstrated skilful ballon, appearing fixed in the air at the height of their jumps.

Although Campbell and Vanstone performed beautifully on their own and alongside one another, some of their movements together, during the pas de deux of Act II, appeared slightly rigid and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, they both performed spectacularly and their exuberance was captivating.

When the Nutcracker and the Sugar Plum Fairy retreat to the Fabergé-style egg, Marie and Misha must return to their slumber, withdrawing, along with the audience, from their reverie. All in all, it was an enchanting performance, and one that left patrons with the same wonderment that comes to the siblings in their experiences at the Palace.

The National Ballet of Canada performs The Nutcracker from December 10 through December 31 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto.

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