Those attending this year's opening night performance of Ballet Arizona's The Nutcracker, choreographed by artistic director Ib Andersen, must have thought they'd been treated to a two-for-one special.
The ballet we witnessed during the first act bore little resemblance to the ballet we watched during the second -- leaving us eager to ask: Will the real Nutcracker please stand up?
There is no "real" production of The Nutcracker, of course. It's been performed countless ways by all sorts of companies through the years. It premiered in Russia in 1892, choreographed by Marius Petipa, who commissioned Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky to write the music.
Just four seasons ago, Alistair Macauley of The New York Times traveled around the country for a "marathon" that included 27 different productions of The Nutcracker -- then deemed productions by Ballet West, Ballet Arizona, and Richmond Ballet "the best discoveries" of his tour.
Figuring Andersen wouldn't try to fix something that wasn't broken, we expected to see a similar production this year. Instead, we saw a cluttered first act followed by a minimalist second act.
Changes should be expected since choreographers, like other artists, evolve over time.
But we got the feeling that Andersen created two different takes on the famous ballet, then decided to share only half of each one this season. They're both perfectly lovely, but they're not a matched set.
There's a sweet spot during the opening scene of the second act, when young dancers dressed in elaborate gold angel garb seem to glide across the stage that's covered with rolling fog as if milling about heaven. Costumes, scenery, and lighting are beautiful and balanced -- but it's the exception rather than the rule.
Design elements during the first act, in which friends and family gather to celebrate Christmas, already betray this production's lack of cohesion. One set feels like a Charles Dickens storybook, another like an exaggerated modern-day cartoon complete with tree boughs resembling pickles rather than pines.
For much of the second act, the only set piece is the simple throne that holds Clara and her Prince. Towers of sheer curtains with subtle pastel designs flank each side of the stage, and a backdrop that resembles textbook images of the cosmos changes colors with each new dance performed in the land of sweets.
It's aesthetically jarring given the final scenes of the first act, which feature a black background punctuated by stars created with Swarovski crystals. It's the backdrop for what's meant to be falling snow but looks more like globs of glitter or bubbles being thrown down from on high. One act is over-the-top. The other underwhelming.
Both acts have the same design team: Sets by Carey Wong and Andersen, costumes by Fabio Toblini, and lighting by Michael Korsch.
Several other elements left us wondering whether Andersen thinks he needs to dummy The Nutcracker down for contemporary audiences. A set piece with a red-eyed, bobble-head rat. A rat shaking his backside at the audience. A Drosselmeyer who orchestrates his magic far too emphatically.
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In years past, we've seen far different takes on Drosselmeyer, the mysterious man who brings toys for children attending the party -- including a Nutcracker for young Clara. The character who once elicited a delicious sliver of dread, spreading a lavish cape as he approached a spellbound Clara, has become a buffoon or clownish prankster. Children's performances aren't yet polished, but they're still plenty fun to watch.
Be prepared for all sorts of changes if it's been a couple of years since you've seen Ballet Arizona perform The Nutcracker. Odds are, you'll favor the aesthetic of one act over the other. But the good news it this: The dancing is solid, and you might leave feeling like you just snagged the two-for-one special.
Ballet Arizona performs The Nutcracker with The Phoenix Symphony at Symphony Hall through Sunday, December 28. Tickets start at $15. For information or tickets, visit Ballet Arizona online or call the box office at 602-381-1096.