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Valerie Harmon performs the role of Clara/The Sugar Plum Fairy in Michael Pink's "The Nutcracker," which runs until Dec. 26.
Valerie Harmon performs the role of Clara/The Sugar Plum Fairy in Michael Pink's "The Nutcracker," which runs until Dec. 26. (Photo: Jessica Kaminski)
Julianne Kepley performs the role of the Snow Queen on opening night (the roles vary each performance). Also pictured: Rachel Malehorn.
Julianne Kepley performs the role of the Snow Queen on opening night (the roles vary each performance). Also pictured: Rachel Malehorn. (Photo: Jessica Kaminski)

Pink's "The Nutcracker" shines again

There is nothing more joyful than Christmas through the eyes of a child, and there are few experiences more gratifying than to witness a young person’s first exposure to art in any of its forms.

Call it a Christmas miracle, then, that these two moments are magically united in Michael Pink’s "The Nutcracker," a jubilant and lively production that is bursting at the seams with royal beauty bright. But the seasonal delights of the choreography, set, lighting, score and costumes are only half the magic. The other half comes courtesy of the audience.

There may not be another artistic production, ballet or otherwise, that is so encouraging of – and dependent upon – the enthusiasm of its audience members, most of whom are very young.

For any performance of this season’s "The Nutcracker," which runs until Dec. 26, there is bound to be a sea of children – mostly little girls – in vibrantly colored Christmas dresses making their way toward Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. These kids are at the age where they associate Christmas with reindeer, Santa, presents and no school – and now, ballet.

The presence of the little ones brings a joy and effervescence to the occasion that quite frankly is lacking in every other production of Pink & Co. – and through no fault of theirs. You’re not going to bring your 10-year-old to see Mimi hack herself to death in Rodolfo’s arms in "La Boheme," after all.

And so it is "The Nutcracker" that, more than any other event of the ballet season, reminds us why dance is important – indeed, why art is important. Dance is beautiful. It’s joyful. It inspires. And at Christmas, more than any other time of year, we need to remember that the things that exist in this world simply for the purposes of being beautiful, joyful and inspirational are perhaps the most important things of all.

There isn’t a whole lot you can do with "The Nutcracker," and I’m not sure that anyone would accuse this production of being daring or original. Every year brings changes, of course, both in choreography and artistic staff, and so those who make it an annual tradition to attend will always notice something new.

But frankly, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Milwaukee audiences have always responded positively to Pink’s interpretation of the ballet, and Tchaikovsky’s score is one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the Western world. Innovation doesn’t really have a place in "The Nutcracker."

The piece is charmingly family-oriented, much more so than some of its previous incarnations. If you think the kids won’t enjoy a five-minute-solid dance sequence performed by the corps de ballet, they’ll probably get a kick out of Fritz and Clara horsing around in the background.

These characters, played by Barry Molina and Luz San Miguel, are a proxy for the audience and also a pleasant distraction for those little audience members who may not have the attention span for a full-length ballet. And everyone, parents included, will appreciate the "awww" factor provided by the angels who open Act II; these adorable, curly-headed mini-ballerinas are students of the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy, who utilize the talents of over 140 of their students every year in this production.

There is plenty for the purists as well, though. Fritz and Marie’s antics never take away from the seamless choreography, and the Milwaukee Ballet’s capable leading artist have plenty of opportunities to shine in "The Nutcracker."

Mayara Pineiro, who played the Snow Queen, gave a jarringly beautiful performance which emulated the spirit of a snowflake on the wind with every shiver and step. Janel Meindersee and Justin Genna also arrested the audience as the Arabian dancers, exhibiting an impressive amount of muscle control in a pas de deux that came off as a somewhat more graceful interpretation of Cirque du Soleil-style athleticism.

And this review simply could not overlook the heroic comedic efforts of the "jacks," performed by Ryan Martin, Isaac Sharratt and Garrett Glassman. These bumbling, tumbling clowns (presented by Drosselmeyer as an amusement in Act I; they come to life in Act II) interact charmingly with Fritz throughout the second act in a show of boyish horseplay. But they also hold the audience in their hands by sneaking in hilarious "Gangnam Style" dance moves – and by "forgetting" to leave the stage after the curtain has come down.


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