During his five-year regime as director of American Ballet Theatre, Mikhail Baryshnikov often has been accused, for better or worse, of cultivating untried domestic talent when he could have been importing European stars.
This season he is offering at least one major exception to his no-visitors rule: a tiny, dark-eyed, mercurial, charismatic waif from Milan via London named Alessandra Ferri.
She was to have made her New York debut last fall dancing Juliet to Baryshnikov's Romeo. Unfortunately, surgery kept the superdanseur from keeping this appointment with romantic destiny, and the newcomer had to settle for an alternate star-cross'd lover.
Nevertheless, the Royal Ballet's loss has become Ballet Theatre's emphatic gain. Sunday night Ferri took her place in the festive "Nutcracker" parade at Shrine Auditorium, and it turned out to be a place of honor.
She wasn't just new to Baryshnikov's unconventional staging of the yuletide perennial. She actually had never danced any production of "The Nutcracker" before.
One wouldn't have guessed it.
Ferri seized the role of Clara as if it had been created for her. She played the early scenes with an air of gawky-little-girl innocence that almost--but not quite--masked the heroine's innate vulnerability. She introduced telling details of characterization even when she wasn't the center of attention. It will be difficult to forget the tenderness with which she cradled the injured nutcracker doll in her arms, or the way she turned and buried her head in her father's jacket when the guest who had broken the toy came to say good-night.
In the transformation scenes, she conveyed fascinating shades of disbelief and ecstasy where most other Claras have been content to stand and smile. She even sustained an aura of breathless awe when required to do nothing but sit at the side of the stage and watch the endless character-dance rituals.
The dramatic involvement and invention that illuminated Ferri's acting could not be separated, of course, from her dancing. She floated over the complex if not invariably rewarding classical hurdles with dainty determination. She brought nervous, weightless abandon to the grand pas de deux, then agonizingly defined the contradictory impulses of the pas d'action that pits Drosselmeyer against the Prince.
Ferri isn't just a compelling ballerina. She is an illuminating, independent, thoughtful personality. There are all too few of her kind these days at Ballet Theatre.
Robert La Fosse, her plaything-turned-cavalier, exuded all-purpose blondhero ardor, served as a sturdy partner, mustered the wooden-prince charades of Act I crisply and delivered the fireworks of Act II with more bravado than elegance.
More problematic, by far, was the new and drastically unorthodox Drosselmeyer, Raymond Serrano. Unlike Alexander Minz, the resident role model, Serrano plays the mysterious puppeteer as a handsome, even dashing, youth. He is dark and debonair, a little self-conscious, prone to furrowing his brow to convey inner agitation. He mimes carefully, dances deftly, looks chronically slick.
Although his originality is arresting, it doesn't make a great deal of sense in this dramatic context. Despite the somber costume and occasional scowl, Serrano's Drosselmeyer emerges as little more than a nice, nearly boyish neighbor who happens to have mastered a few magic tricks.
As long as he is around, and so overtly attentive, Clara doesn't really have to dream of any nutcracker-prince. Young Drosselmeyer ought to be able to fulfill her spiritual and physical yearnings very nicely, thank you.
The possible psychosexual implications are provocative. One suspects, however, that Baryshnikov had something else in mind.
Otherwise, this was pretty much "Nutcracker" as usual, with the corps improved, the scenic effects well-gauged, and the supporting cast of thousands dominated by Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner as a particularly stylish matched pair of shepherds. Paul Connelly, alas, did not enjoy his--or Tchaikovsky's--least erratic hour in the pit.