Not for nothing has the Oakland Ballet earned a reputation as one of the most enterprising regional companies in America. But director Ronn Guidi's attempt to revise, reform, reinterpret and renew "The Nutcracker" results in a hopelessly scrambled, ruinously unmusical production.
Currently ending a six-performance run at Smothers Theatre, Pepperdine, Guidi's "Nutcracker" incorporates touches (though not the dark tone) of the original E.T.A. Hoffmann tale. Thus the young heroine is named Marie (not Clara) and has a sister, Louise. And the Nutcracker doll given to Marie (at a family-only Christmas party) becomes identified with Drosselmeyer's young nephew.
Guidi tries to knit the two acts of the ballet together through dream-associations, but having Marie's mom and pop reappear as the under-clad participants of the sensual Arabian dance raises far more questions than this staging can begin to explore or resolve.
Moreover, the intimacy and special emphases in Guidi's version often violate the scale and mood of Tchaikovsky's score (canned and over-amplified)--so numbers are cut, shuffled or, worse, everything but tempo is ignored.
Running counter to his dramatic purposes, Guidi inserts a number of pure-dance sequences of varying aptness. In place of the standard recapitulation-finale, for instance, he devises an extended formal sextet that expresses a far different sensibility than either Marie's or Tchaikovsky's at that point.
Like the production, the dancing is neither boring nor persuasive. The choreography puts a premium on brief bursts of bravura technique, and nearly everyone punches out the steps in a stiff, by-the-counts manner that leaves little room for charm or elegance. Port de bras is uniformly brittle, and only a few principals (notably David Kleine as the Nephew-Prince, Joy Gim and Susan Taylor as shepherdesses) bring more than a grim efficiency to their dancing.
Erin Leedom conveys considerable rigid grandeur as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Abra Rudisill executes the Snow Queen's difficult and sometimes ugly stunts capably. But something more fundamental than the Oakland Ballet's proven prowess is at stake here: problems of dance expression and style, of dramatic consistency and cohesion.
Guidi never seems to have considered how the narrative and choreographic components of this "Nutcracker" would fit together, and all his scattershot novelty has left its mark on Richard Battle's designs, too. For every bright invention suited to the story and score (the needle-nosed, toe-dancing Mouse corps, for example) there are many, many curiosities (including a candy-Kremlin backdrop) to puzzle over or regret.