This winter marks a momentous occasion for Ballet Austin. This year's The Nutcracker is the company's 50th annual production of the beloved ballet, and from my seat last night, I can say that this Golden Anniversary production is exactly that: golden. Helmed by choreographer Stephen Mills, this Nutcracker is full of life, beauty, and charm. Every moment is absolutely wonderful. It's doubtful that you'll find a production better than this.
Much of the success is owed to the brilliant staging and choreography by Stephen Mills. We all have heard some people bemoan that in their opinion ballet can be tiresome or boring, but here Mills keeps things moving along at a quick pace. Every moment is a feast for the eyes. Moreover, his choreography is beautifully tailored to the story, the moment, the characters, and the strengths of his dancers. The dances performed by his female performers are graceful and elegant. His men dance with strength, power, and athleticism, and sprinkled in here and there are some comedic moments.
While Act One is fantastic (the battle scene and the pas de deux between the Snow Queen and King are particularly memorable), the best bits occur in Act Two. The Waltz of the Flowers and Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy are absolutely beautiful. The precision and poise in the women featured are astonishing, and the routines are certain to inspire young girls in the audience to ask Santa for ballet lessons. The Russian Dance is another strong point wherein three of the most talented men in the company leap across the stage with unsurpassed athleticism and enthusiasm. But judging by the audience response, the most memorable moment is the Arabian Dance. Here, Mills's choreography is intricate and complex, yet dancers Rebecca Johnson and Christopher Swaim are able to handle the demanding partner work with ease.
Adding to Mills's extraordinary vision is the stellar Austin Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Jeffrey Eckstein. I honestly say that Tchaikovsky's sumptuous melodies have never sounded better.
Completing the piece are some incredibly lush and stunning designs. The scenic design by Richard Isackes is colorful and whimsical without going over the top. Everything is befitting a young girl's fantasyland. Tony Tucci's lighting design fills the stage with color and warmth. The costumes by Tommy Bourgeois are all incredibly ornate and detailed. The beading and features on certain costumes like the Snow Queen, Sugar Plum Fairy, and the Arabian pas de deux couple are absolutely exquisite.
It's worth noting that after utilizing the same sets and costumes for the last 16 years of this production, Ballet Austin will debut new designs in their 2013 production of The Nutcracker. While I had an opportunity during intermission to view some drawings and sketches of the new designs, all of which are spectacular, I urge you to see the current production so you can enjoy the current design before it is retired. While both designs are extraordinary, neither set of designs is superior to the other.
With its hard-working and talented cast, fantastic choreography, and sumptuous designs, Ballet Austin's The Nutcracker is downright perfect. Even the sugarplums that will surely dance in your head afterwards are not as sweet as this.
Run time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 20 minute intermission.
THE NUTCRACKER plays the Long Center for the Performing Arts now thru December 23. Tickets start at $15. For tickets and information, please visit www.balletaustin.org
Top photo: The Russian Dance from Ballet Austin's THE NUTCRACKER. Bottom photo: The Sugar Plum Fairy pas des deux from Ballet Austin's THE NUTCRACKER.