Mikhail Baryshnikov's production of "The Nutcracker"--the thinking person's version, the one with fewer sugarplums and more psycho-erotic undertones--has endured good times and bad since its premiere 11 years ago.
In recent seasons, it has tended toward the sad and the dutiful.
As an endless parade of talented but often faceless dancers came and went, the narrative focus often got blurred. The intriguing subtext about the anxieties of awakening womanhood often got lost. Character definition became generalized, and quality performances in subsidiary assignments became a sometime thing.
Benumbed with cold, your dauntless scribe dragged himself through wind and rain and sleet and hale and parking problems to Shrine Auditorium Wednesday night, braced for yet another bedraggled ritual. Chronicling "Nutcracker" cheer over and over again, yule in and yule out, is dirty work, but somebody has to do it.
The spirit sagged further, if such was possible, when a company representative announced a small technical problem. A nearby power failure necessitated curtailment of light and, worse, heat. Chronic humbugging beckoned.
But no. Miracles are still possible. There is a god, and he or she sometimes watches over Tchaikovsky, Baryshnikov, the Shriners and the Stahlbaums.
As the curtain was rising, the electricity suddenly came on, full force. And after the curtain had risen, American Ballet Theatre mustered a lovely, fresh and vital performance of "The Nutcracker." It was unsettling.
Marianna Tcherkassky, who had created the role of Clara in 1976, returned to it on this occasion with her sweetness of expression, her clarity of phrasing, her pert simplicity and airy elegance all intact. Other dancers--most notably Gelsey Kirkland and Alessandra Ferri--have probed the inherent coming-of-age emotions with greater poignancy, but few have matched Tcherkassky's fleetness, security and sincerity.
In Johan Renvall, she found a Nutcracker Prince worthy, in most ways, of comparison with the originator of the role: the mighty Baryshnikov himself. An oddly underrated dancer, Renvall is the neatest of technicians and the most considerate of partners. He can soar to the sky with exuberant ease and return to earth with gentle buoyance. He is extraordinarily suave, playful, casually virtuosic.
His only liability in this context would seem to be his tendency to flash a disarmingly ingenuous smile--at all times. That, of course, can be corrected, with plastic surgery if necessary. Obviously, the company owes him a Romeo, perhaps even an Albrecht.
Renvall's blond, boyish charm provided a nice foil for the vaguely sinister, eminently manly counterforce of Victor Barbee as Drosselmeyer. Barbee cannot make one forget the wry and distinctly middle-aged Drosselmeyer of Alexander Minz in the original cast, but he definitely is the most compelling of the younger-generation contenders.
He may have looked a bit self-consciously handsome, with just a hint of gray streaking his oddly spangled black hair. Nevertheless, he sustained a splendid aura of mystery in the mime passages and conveyed just the right tone of muted sensuality in the ultimate, competitive pas de trois.
The assorted caractere episodes were performed with unaccustomed elan.
Raymond Serrano managed the transition from nasty party boor to nasty Mouse King very cleverly. Christina Fagundes and Ricardo Bustamante ignited the Spanish dance. The court buffoons--William Stolar, Thomas Titone, Thomas Terry and Roger van Fleteren--were really deft and funny (their spinning skills might be welcome in the new "Raymonda" mishmash).
Bonnie Moore and Wes Chapman brought luxurious verve to the little Shepherd divertissement. John Gardner and Robert Wallace dispatched the Russian duet with crisp athleticism in the best Moiseyev manner. Christine Spizzo and John Wey Ling appeared sprightly and Chinese, if you please, in what used to be the Tea dance.
The corps snow-flaked and flower-waltzed with fluidity that did not preclude precision, and the locally recruited orchestra played the wondrous Tchaikovsky score appreciatively for Jack Everly.
And now, with a reflexive shudder, on to the brand-new Joffrey "Nutcracker" . . . .