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The costumes and color highlight the dancing in "The Nutcracker" by the Milwaukee Ballet. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

"The Nutcracker" rings the bells with kids, music and a great dance company

Everybody knows that "The Nutcracker" is a consistent thrill for children, who stay riveted to the stage by the beautiful music and the magical costumes, set and dancing.

But what's in it for the grownups?

The Milwaukee Ballet opened its version of the century-old classic tale, and you could tell it was a hit from the oohs and aahs of the children who watched with the kind of intensity only children can have.

I've seen the Milwaukee Ballet version for years, and opening night, I wanted to pay close attention to what's in it for me. Everyone knows "Swan Lake" and "La Sylphide" (which is coming later this season). And though we all know the story of "The Nutcracker," most adults consider it a show for their children.

What's in it for me?

The simplest answer is that it's a chance to watch marvelously skilled ballet dancers do what artistic director Michael Pink's dancers do best: tell a story. It's both the big dances and the small moments that, if you are watching carefully, make you really appreciate what kind of company that he has built.

There used to be a tale told about Luciano Pavarotti that even though he had marvelous technique, he occasionally slipped a note here and there, but it didn't make any difference because you knew his music came from the heart.

The same could be said of this ballet company. There may be moments that slip briefly out of time or wobble a smidgen, but none of that matters because these dancers tell stories that come from their hearts. These are stories we know so well, but this company makes every tale seem fresh as a newly cut Christmas tree.

The first to capture attention is always the dollmaker Drosselmeyer, danced this night by Isaac Sharratt, who created a man of magic but also one with a little edge and a spate of kindness.

Next to step into the spotlight is the precocious Fritz, danced by Garrett Glassman, who brought a childlike exuberance to the role. His pairing with Clara (Alana Griffith) is the kind of sweetness that makes this production so special.

Griffith continues to grow into such a confident and expressive dancer that she's a pleasure to watch.

Opening night saw Luz San Miguel dance Marie and Arionel Vargas dance Karl, and having seen this so often, I could hardly wait for their grand pas.

He was powerful in his jetés en manege, and her pirouettes were exquisite. When put together, they captured all of the magic of a couple who've fallen deeply in an almost perfect love. Dressed in an orange sherbet colored tutu and a matching vest for him, the two stopped the breathing in the room. San Miguel remains one of the most captivating dancers this company has ever had, a dancer who demands your strict attention.

There also were so many smaller moments that deserve to be noticed and savored.

The Shepherdess Doll (Lahna Vandberbush) and Jack Doll (Barry Molina) show up together as Drosselmeyer pulls them out of his magic box. Watching first Teague and then Molina bring their dolls to halting life is watching two dancers at the top of their game and who find all of the humor and lift they can in their characters.

The Spanish duo of Vanderbush and Jonathan Batista had just the right amount of flamenco-like pomp, and the Arabian duo of Itzel Hernandez and Patrick Howell dripped just the right amount of sexiness without going overboard.

"The Nutcracker" is liberally filled with young dancers from angels to flowers and mice. It's a marvelous feat of choreography for Pink and all the other adults get all these bodies on and off the stage without killing each other. The kids always get a big reaction from the crowd, and this year's group seemed more than ready for all their applause.

The ballet orchestra, under the baton of Pasquali Lorino, was on top of the Tchaikovsky score with special honors for the strings that carried so many of the familiar melodies well through the hall. The sets and costumes (Zack Brown) and lighting (David Grill) combined to provide a holiday feast for the eyes.

But for me, the spectacle of this production was watching the company dancers create stories with the kind of magic and thrill that are hallmarks of Pink's always impressive body of work.

"The Nutcracker" runs through Dec. 27 and information of showtimes and tickets is available here.


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