For its 51st annual production of “The Nutcracker” at the Long Center, Ballet Austin unveils new sets and costumes.
To faithful fans, the changes came as a breath of fresh, snowflake-laden air, and it was impossible not to notice a renewed sense of commitment to the holiday tradition from the dancers as they performed artistic director Stephen Mills’ established choreography.
Those new to and familiar with “The Nutcracker” alike have through Dec. 23 to take in the production, which features costumes constructed in the United Kingdom and designed by Judanna Lynn, who has designed for most major dance companies in the United States, including the New York City Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. (Read Jeanne Claire van Ryzin’s story about the new sets and costumes, published earlier this month, at mystatesman.com.)
The scenic design, from Act I’s grand party scene and subsequent battle between soldiers and rats to Act II’s Land of the Sweets, is by Holly Highfill, who has designed for ballet and opera companies such as Ballet West and Baltimore Opera.
The new sets and costumes were complemented brilliantly (both literally and figuratively) by veteran Tony Tucci’s lighting design. It was the combination of these three visual elements that gave the production a new sheen.
Opening night’s Clara was played by a bubbly Peyton Cunningham; her steadfast energy, from the excitement of the Christmas Eve party to the terror of the battle scene and awe in the Sugarplum Court, never wavered. She and her friends (the children in this production are Ballet Austin Academy students) donned luxurious pastel-colored party dresses, while the adults wore richer colors, including burgundy, chocolate and hunter-green velvet coattails.
The transformation from party to battle was seamless and enchanting. The Christmas tree, whose candlelights twinkled in the darkened living room, grew as Clara shrunk down to toy size. Ultimately, the audience, too, found itself under the tree, quite literally as the Christmas tree branches formed a canopy over the stage.
A gigantic toy horse and bird loomed in the background as the soldiers — outfitted with sparkly black hats and shimmering blue-and-red uniforms — fought off the fierce rats through a haze of cannon smoke and flashing lights. The Rat King, it must be pointed out, did not wield a sword, but rather a butter knife.
As the Snow Queen, Rebecca Johnson wore a midnight-blue tutu that faded to turquoise on the edges of the stiff tulle. As she drifted toward the audience with the help of Snow King Christopher Swaim, the forest light caught the sparkles on her outfit, much like fresh powder glitters in the sun. The snow corps de ballet wore long and layered white skirts that caught the air as they danced.
In the Court of the Sugarplum Fairy, the scene became more embellished with each dance; against the backdrop, huge ornaments descended from above one by one to create a layering effect.
Act II’s costumes did not disappoint. In the Chinese solo, Jordan Moser’s white-painted face contrasted with a silk pants-and-top ensemble that featured bold colors such as pink, blue and yellow. As the Russian lead dancer, Preston Andrew Patterson performed his signature soaring leaps to much applause, this time in fire-engine-red boots paired with a velvety green and blue look. The Russian piece is always a crowd pleaser, and this year was no exception. Aare Krumpe’s light pink Sugarplum Fairy tutu couldn’t have been sweeter as it sparkled like a sugar-crusted candy.
Though there’s still plenty of tradition in Ballet Austin’s “The Nutcracker,” this year’s production is a welcome refresh of a time-old classic.