It’s not every day you can attend “The Nutcracker” and see a completely brand-new show, but that’s what you’ll get at Tacoma City Ballet’s current Pantages production, in a shimmery blast of color and story. “The Tale of the Hard Nut,” a prequel from Hoffman’s tales that fully explains the genesis of “The Nutcracker,” was unveiled Saturday afternoon prior to the traditional ballet in a delightful synchrony of visuals, music and dance.
The curtain-raise alone was worth the ticket price. In front of the company’s 100-year-old palace drops, which are so exquisitely painted that their columns and moldings look three-dimensional, stood a poppy-red-coated king, a maroon-dressed queen and Princess Pirlipat looking like a doll in pink and gold to match the alpenglow lighting. Visually, things just got better and better: a jester in bubblegum-pink checks, a fuschia-and-gray mouse queen, court guests in peacock teal and magenta, pages in tunics like a sparkling pack of cards. Add in a clever purple-gold bed that doubled as a mousetrap and a second swirly-gold drop and you have a feast for the eyes.
And while not groundbreaking, the dancing for this prequel (newly choreographed by director Erin Ceragioli) told a good story with fast-paced action: mice who steal sausages and get beheaded, and a mouse queen who takes revenge with a curse of ugliness that gives a young man a gruff, wooden face that looks all too familiar. As the King, Salvatore Lucente was engaging and believable; Carolynne Guinup made a comic Jester; Joel Myers and Kylie Lewallen gave the two guarding cats a very feline grace and lift; and Kyle Johnson, while emotionally cool, danced the Nutcracker-to-be (and later, the Prince) with beautiful extension and poise.
A pity about the orchestra: the Northwest Sinfonietta, usually one of the best orchestras in the region but on Saturday sounding more like a high school band with intonation issues. Things did get better during the following two acts.
Meanwhile, the rest of TCB’s “Nutcracker” remained largely as usual – some dull corps dancing, some cute kiddos as the Bonbons, some stand-out solos like the super-flexible Alisha Cushing and a seductive Davione Gordon in the Arabian dance, a snappy Madeline Larson in the Spanish. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Kylie Lewallen was rather icy but precise and crisp, while Joel Myers injected an honesty that’s as good to see as his light leaps and twists. Alex Koleber made the Chinese dance great fun, and Nora Kelley gave young Clara sincerity and delight.
Another bonus of the “Tale of the Hard Nut” prequel is how both the music and dancers create echoes from one story to the next: the King becomes Herr Silberhaus and the Queen his wife (now in 19th-century dress); Pirlipat becomes Clara; and the musical motifs recur with similar meaning (flutter-tongue flutes for scurrying mice, horn blasts for battles and so on.) It’s a deeper connection than the brief, puzzling prologues that companies like Pacific Northwest Ballet do, and satisfyingly explains just why that Nutcracker does what he does.
And the other big bonus of a Tacoma City Ballet “Nutcracker” is how intimate it all is. Instead of peering down fifty feet at tiny dancers on a faraway stage, you’re close enough to see the father’s eyes roll in frustration at his son’s mischief, or see the individual looks of joy on each Snowflake’s face. When the choir sings, they’re right beside you in the theater, and the stage action feels like it’s being danced in your living room. Yes, you’ll get drill-team precision, immaculate fouettés and perfect negative-split leaps if you see the Seattle version. But you won’t be this close, and you won’t get this stunningly-colored, imaginatively acted prequel. For that you’ll need to see it in Tacoma.
What: “The Nutcracker,” with prequel “The Tale of the Hard Nut”
Who: Tacoma City Ballet with Northwest Sinfonietta
When: 3 p.m. Dec. 14, 15, 21 and 22
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma
Information: 253-591-5894, broadwaycenter.org, tacomacityballet.com