Ushering in the holiday season the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet brought its annual “Nutcracker” to the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts this past weekend.  Founded by Bebe Schweppe in 1996 she brought in Artistic Director Tom Mossbrucker and Executive Director Jean Philppe Malaty to create a company in Aspen, Colorado, which eventually led to a duel city relationship with Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The two city company has thrived under their guidance.

Upon hearing the first notes of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic score you are instantly transported into a dreamy wonderland of dancing flowers, fairies, snowflakes, candy canes and toys galore and you know that Christmas is just around the corner.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet - Nutcracker - Photo by Luis Luque

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – Nutcracker – Photo by Luis Luque

This production is a version of the story we all know. A young Clara, nicely played by Brynn Iby receives a toy Nutcracker from her strange Uncle Drosselmeyer, an adequate Steve Cook, at her family’s elaborate Christmas party. This opening scene has been shortened from the standard production and is a wise choice on the part of the choreographers Jean Philippe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker.  Drosselmeyer conjures a large book, which descends from above as Clara sleeps nearby. He uses a magic key to open the cover and reveal the story.  This is an age-old artifice that can work well but was somewhat awkward here, as the book seemed flimsy and insubstantial.  From here we are whisked into the holiday celebration with a stage full to capacity of happy partygoers both young and old.  An elegant staircase and large Christmas tree set the scene.  Set designs by Roger Lavoie generally work well especially in Act II with his beautiful carousel themed composition.  Children from the Los Angeles Youth Ballet bring earnestness and enthusiasm to their roles and to the simple yet appropriate choreography.  The adults also bring earnestness to their roles including Sadie Brown as Clara’s mother, Peter Leo Walker, her father and young Malcolm McLaurin Takumi as the annoying Fritz.  The choreography throughout this sequence is simple and performed well enough but this is a story ballet and this is what becomes problematic.

La Emi - Aspen Santa Fe Ballet - Nutcracker - Photo by Luis Luque

La Emi – Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – Nutcracker – Photo by Luis Luque

Several important events happen in the party scene and yet if one does not have a slight grasp of the story beforehand it is not clear as to exactly what we should follow.  Because of this what is to come can be confusing.  This party is busy, busy, busy verging on the frenetic.  Knowing where to look is difficult.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet - Nutcracker - Photo by Luis Luque

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – Nutcracker – Photo by Luis Luque

As the party comes to an end a sleepy Clara is put to bed for the night holding tightly to her new toy, the now broken by Fritz, “Nutcracker.”  The events of the party shape Clara’s dreams.  Guiding her through this nighttime flight is a not very magical Drosselmeyer.  From “the Battle” to “The Kingdom of Snow” through “The Land of Sweets” he leads her until she is home to awaken in her own bed.

The battle is a chaotic mix of movement between the Rat King, Joseph Watson and the Nutcracker, Juan Posada.  Neither dancer is given enough to do to make clear their ability although Joseph Watson has verve and pizazz.  Into the mix come the Mice and Soldiers ready for battle along with several toy animals and toy soldiers that seem to appear and disappear with no clear purpose.  The choreography in this section is not polished nor focused.  It’s possible to miss the transformation of the Nutcracker who wins the battle and becomes a real Prince in what should be a seminal moment.  On this night, the mice were danced by Melody Attefat, Michelle Mikhalevich, Charlie Ozdag, Shelby Rubin, Camille DeStefano, Sofia Strauser, and Paige Ventimiglia.  The soldiers were Carly Fujioki, Emma Grigorian, Amanda Harris, Mia Narvades, Annya Redfern, Brooke Sinton and Ellie Wein.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet - Nutcracker - Photo by Luis Luque

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – Nutcracker – Photo by Luis Luque

Once the battle is won the Prince leads Clara into a mystical place of quiet beauty the “Kingdom of Snow.” Here the ballet is more successful in working with the music and in giving the corps de ballet some nice moments.  The Snow Queen, Jenny Winton, is capable but wooden and the Snow King has little to do.  The Snow Prince however, Matthew Gilmore, brings much needed energy, excellent technique and joy to the stage.  The Snowflakes do a good job as well.  They are members of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet but no individual credit is given in the program.   Overall this section is pleasantly pleasing.  A beautiful postcard picture emerges, with snow falling, dancers gliding, the moon above and achingly nostalgic music, to close the first act.

“Land of the Sweets” opens to a lovely carousel setting that will become the backdrop throughout Act II.  Clara watches as this magical land unfolds captivating her with one enchantment after another.  Various characters show off including Jack In The Box, a wonderfully athletic Zach Manske. Introduced in the party scene, it is great to see him again as he zooms and spins his way throughout Act II bringing energy and fun with him.

On this evening guest stars Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez of the Joffrey Ballet performed the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier.  Both dancers are excellent technically and beautiful to look at but seemed distant and uninvolved not only with each other but with the ballet itself.  Though they dance perfectly and do exactly as asked their lack of chemistry and connection to the company was a disappointment.

This was followed by dances from different cultures; a fun segment that had mixed results here.  The music was edited to shorten each section.  First came the castanets of the Spanish dancer La Emi.  Then came a wildly misplaced silk routine in place of the usually sensual Arabian dance.  Katarina Amerine is a very capable silk dancer but this idea did not work and left her partner Joseph Watson with nothing to do but reach.  Chinese dancer Zhongmei Li performed a simple routine in which she used the elongated sleeves of her costume as swirling banners.  Mirlton was a well-danced trio with Elysa Hotchkiss and unnamed Aspen Santa Fe Co. dancers, and the Russian dancers Irina Kleyfeld and Boulat Moukhametov worked hard.  And finally came the Cooks, Malcolm McLaurin Takumi and Alex Sobel followed by Candy Canes, Elenore Bunje, Michelle Cholfin, Isabelle Fierro, Mikayla Kiefer, Tessa Matzkin, Anorah Permenter, Isabele Rubio and Rebecca Stoll.  All of this blended together as one piece with the overall feel of a recital, fun to watch, but not up to company standards.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet - Nutcracker - Photo by Luis Luque

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – Nutcracker – Photo by Luis Luque

The highlight of the evening by far was the wonderful Waltz Of The Flowers.  Everything came together here.  The lovely ensemble danced with practiced abandon and visible joy.  This choreography was perfectly matched to the music and gave the dancers a chance to “just dance.” Adding to the splendor of the moment were beautiful flowing costumes of deepest pink.  Madeline Scott danced the part of Dewdrop in all white and though she is a fine dancer the part seemed superfluous.  The Flower dancers are credited as the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet artists but again, no individual credits are given.  The adorable, tiny Bumblebees have a moment with the Flowers and draw “aws” from the audience.  They are Ellis Armstrong, Sabrina Brown, Olivia Fleming, Pearl Gyorkei, Scarlett James, Ayla Javier-Ramos Alianna Nassos, Goldie Perlin, Katherine Sweeney and Harper Thompson.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet - Nutcracker - Photo by Luis Luque

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – Nutcracker – Photo by Luis Luque

The finale music enraptures as the full cast comes together in a swirl of color and movement.  Though it is not a perfect production and one could wish for better storytelling skills, one cannot help but enjoy the moment.

Costume design throughout is excellent and though no credit is given for design Brianna Fristoe gets a well-deserved credit as Wardrobe Head.  Lighting Design by Seah Johnson is good especially in Act II.  Sound Design by Sam Chittenden is limited by the track, which is not pristine and can sound muddy.  Technical Director is Danny Bacheldor.

Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle, December 11, 2019.

Additional credits not mentioned above are:

ASPEN SANTA FE ARTISTS, Katherine Bolanos, Emily Grimm, Leah Haggard, Margrete Hartley, Brooke Huebner, Devin Danielle Larsen, Johanna Levie, Beth Ann Maslinoff, Juliette Ochoa, Amy Saunder, Madeline Scott, Anthony Tiedman, Demi Trezona, Kaya Wolsey

DOLL – Johanna Levie



PARTY GIRLS AND BABY – Nadia Gruhlke, Callie Keifer, Milana Resta

PARTY BOYS AND BABY – Declan Carter, Leo Gragnani, Harmony Roche, Axel Sobel, Charlie Gyorkie

CAROLERS – Helena Augsberger, Adeline, Bunje, Antonio Zamora

MARIONETTE – Jana Tuerell

TOY SOLDIERS – Ella Cholfin, Georgia Folsom, Natalia Gyorkie, Vivienne Lago, Eliza Scharff, Samantha Simms

BEAR – Adeline Bunje

RABBIT – Sophia Gorestskey

MONKEY – Helena Ausberger

BLOCKS – Aishwarya Gurudevan, Yuli Koizumi, Mikayla Krivitsky, Isabel Nail, Nessa Bella Nazarian, Noah Nazarian, Camryn Rollins, Grace Strasburger


Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle, December 11, 2019.

To visit the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Website, click here.

Featured image: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – Nutcracker – Photo by Luis Luque