Among the many visual delights of Ratmansky’s new Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre there is one in particular, as arresting as it is beautiful, that lingers after the curtain has gone down on the performance. In Act II the dancers are warming up behind the towering iron work of a garden fence as they wait for the arrival of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince. All the dancers for the Act II diversions are there. It’s a bit of a preview of what’s to come but without making a parade of it as is sometimes done. As the introductory music winds down, they all depart the stage excepting the corps de ballet for Waltz of the Flowers who slowly approach the fence, now in shadow, and stop to silently stare out at the audience. It is remarkable for the way in which the unguarded, eerie moment turns the tables on the usual relationship between the audience and performer.

group of children scurrying across stage, a scene from the Nutcracker in the mansion
The children, Act I of The Nutcracker

Much of this Nutcracker is about doors (and windows) that open onto new worlds. The opening scene in the Stahlbaum kitchen gives way, through a pair of double doors, to the celebrations of the family Christmas. When the grown up Nutcracker Prince and Princess appear in their duet with Clara and her child Prince we get a hint of the music and dancing to come in the Act II pas de deux. That scene takes place in the family house (you see it first in miniature on the opening curtain tilted on its side) turned inside out and made huge with a blue, star-vaulted sky. When the ballet closes Clara wakes up in her room. Both Nutcrackers are there but when she approaches them they turn and disappear. Through the outside window we can see an eavesdropping Drosselmeyer looking in on Clara (and us) before he turns and walks away. Ultimately, this Nutcrackerwhich constantly shifts vantage points is determined to show us all the life, from both inside and out, in that quirky, tilted house. Credit Richard Hudson for his elaborate designs that make the reality and the fantasy equally appealing.

Preserving all of Tchaikovsky’s musical structure for the grand pas de deux, Ratmansky’s variant is full-blooded, romantic, but also visibly human.

In this production’s second go around in Costa Mesa special mention should be made for all the children. They are the most real of the Act I players, especially Chase Rogers as Fritz who never seemed to be faking it in the annoying brother role. Both Annabelle Eubanks and Lorenzo Dunton as the child Clara and Nutcracker Prince made convincing theater out of their roles and innocent romance. Mirroring them were Hee Seo and Cory Stearns in their dancing which capitalizes on complex, unusual partnering but steers clear of the usual icy distance of purely classical versions. Preserving all of Tchaikovsky’s musical structure for the grand pas de deux, Ratmansky’s variant is full-blooded, romantic, but also visibly human. He invests them with the kind of emotional connection that makes their marriage in the final scene seem a natural consequence of the story. Usually left out, it is part of E.T.A. Hoffman’s original narrative and here seems a logical conclusion to the Act II celebrations.

ABT corps ballerina's in pink and white tutus as flowers, male dancers in black suits representing bees - all lifting leg à la seconde
The Bees and Waltz of the Flowers, Act II of The Nutcracker − Photo: Gene Schiavone

For me, the verdict is still out on the young Clara and her Prince racing through the ranks in Snow, as well as the quartet of men dancing the Bees in Waltz of the Flowers. Those hyperactive Bees were part an original Russian production but here often seem too much of a competing addition. For both you could have wished to have seen the corps de ballet dancing it straight, in full classical mode, without distractions.

Interesting detours in Act II included an informal dance off for the Russians in the Trepak, and the Arabian section, which is played for a bit of understated comedy with a harried male attendant and an unruly harem. You might have wished for a powerful woman lording it over four men if the intention was to blunt the abrasiveness of some of the act’s problematic identity politics. But Tchaikovsky’s evocative music, in the end, seems too sublime for the intended humor. The Merliton music redesigned for five women as the Nutcracker Sisters turns into a friendly dance competition. Elegant, refined dancing by April Giangeruso, Catherine Hurlin, Betsy McBride, Paulina Waski, and Stephanie Williams made the most out of Ratmansky’s detailed steps and mannered gestures.

And in the sea of Nutcrackers everywhere that barely survive on recorded music, the performance on Saturday conducted by Charles Barker with the Pacific Symphony was truly great and was acknowledged as such with genuine, boisterous applause. With an exceptional overture, and detailed, colorful playing throughout, the music was everything you could ask for.

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