Until recently, the role of Clara in “The Nutcracker Suite” was mainly an acting part, played by a young girl in a pink nightgown. All she had to do was bop the mouse king with her shoe (usually a ballet slipper) during the first act battle scene, then return to bed to dream about her handsome nutcracker prince.
Li’s arabesques were exquisite, and her stage presence totally professional.
The little heroine (called Marie or Masha in some versions) would then sit quietly and watch the older ballerinas do all the fancy dancing in the Kingdom of the Sweets.
Not true this season—at least not in The Classical Ballet Theatre of Maryland’s rendition of “The Nutcracker” seen at the Jim Rouse Theatre last Sunday afternoon.
As Clara, 14-year-old Jeslyn Li got to dance alone (on pointe, no less) then took a turn or two with professional dancers Vadim Pijicov as Herr Drosselmeyer and the real live nutcracker, Jaime Orrego, who did double duty in the gorgeous Snow Pas de Deux (French for some romantic dance combinations).
In choosing a Clara for any production of “Nuts,” as it is familiarly called, a company director most consider stage presence, ballet technique, acting skills, and how comfortable the ballerina appears on stage.
Jeslyn Ki’s arabesques were exquisite; her rapport with the older dancers, totally professional. On her own, she’s a whiz at turns and leaps. Together with the guys, she appeared as a mature performer with a flair for drama and daring.
Over the course of the two-act fantasy ballet – drenched in the gorgeous music of Tchaikovsky—Clara sees her handsome nutcracker doll come to life, watches him battle giant mice, accompanies him on a wonderful journey through an ice forest, and wraps up her adventure in grand style at a palace hall.
It is at the palace, with its fabulous sets and costumes, where the ballet’s magic peaks. Guest artist Katherine Barkman performed the coveted role of the Sugar Plum with grace, panache, and a genuine love of being the center of attention with an audience cheering her on. Her handsome prince, Masanori Takiguchi handled the triple turns and sensitive partnering as if they were born to dance together.
These artists didn’t perform their parts on stage—they attacked then with passion and a devil-may-care-attitude, making the moment when the princess falls into the arms of her Cavalier all the more romantic and touching. If we’re lucky we might get to see them perform in the Washington Ballet’s Americana version of “The Nutcracker” during its run at the Warner Theatre through December 28, 2021.
When it comes to high-flying Soviet-style dancing, nobody tops Vadim Slatvitsky as the Mouse King. Russian dancers are famous for throwing themselves into their art with utmost abandon. Perhaps sensing that Russian honor is on the line in this traditional holiday spectacle, he was a fierce opponent and flew higher and mightier than other mice.
Adding to the Russian treats, the Kalinka Dance Ensemble joinedL’Etoile dancers for the familiar Russian variation in the second act. Kudos to Ladda Borovikov, James Frank, Fiona Beselman, Danica Kashtelyan, and Juliet Frank. Noteworthy soloists included Sasha Cheloff in the Spanish and Emma Pan in the Chinese. The sultry Arabian duo, Lily Shen and Gabrielle Fish glittered in their gold costumes.
For my money, though the Snow Queen is the real plum role in “The Nutcracker.” Caroline Linehan reigned supreme as she guided her dancing snowflakes across the stage. Partnered by Jaime Orrego who pulled off at least three or four turns in the air (the step that Nureyev made famous) closed the curtain with the audience standing.
Add to all this the choral voices that join in the symphonic score of Tchaikovsky’s famous music, plus the make-believe snow falling from the rafters—it was magic, indeed.
Running Time: about 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.
Directed by Svetlana Kravtsova and Vadim Pijicov, The Classical Ballet Theatre of Maryland, based at L’Etoile/The Russian Ballet Academy of Maryland, performed its 10th annual “The Nutcracker” last weekend at the Jim Rouse Theatre, Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Rd, Columbia, MD 21044. For information on summer programs and spring performances, visit russballet.org.