As we arrived at The Alex Theater in Glendale there was much hustle and bustle as excited children, their families and friends made their way into the theater for The Los Angeles Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”   For many, this was the resumption of an annual holiday tradition. Having been waylaid last year by Covid 19 there seemed to be great joy and anticipation with its return, albeit with masks and proof of vaccination or a negative test within the last 48 hours. The lobby was decorated for Christmas and counters were filled with nutcrackers, ornaments and dolls for sale. All this brought a palpable sense that this chestnut of the theater was about to work it’s magic again.

As the glorious music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky filled the hall a hush came over the noisy room as the children settled down ready to be enchanted. Opening “in one” we see Clara playing with her doll as Fritz teases her, as younger brothers are apt to do. The relationship of Clara, a wonderful, Kate Inoue, to Fritz, the equally terrific Spencer Collins, sets the tone for a lovely evening as the party gets started.

Los Angeles Ballet - Kate Inoue and James Zhenghua Li in "The Nutcracker" - Photo: Reed Hutchinson

Los Angeles Ballet – Kate Inoue and James Zhenghua Li in “The Nutcracker” – Photo: Reed Hutchinson

The party scene, which can often lag, does not here as it is nicely handled by Artistic Directors and Choreographers Thordal Christensen and Colleen Neary. The scrim rises to reveal family and friends gathering in celebration of the Christmas holiday. The set design by Catherine Kanner draws us into the cheerfully luxurious home complete with a large Christmas tree glowing upstage. The dancing is simple but exactly right, well-rehearsed and happily executed. The children are given much to do and they manage all of it with aplomb and a lot of cuteness. Things move along well but it is when the exuberant James Zhenghua Li, as Uncle Drosselmeyer, launches himself onstage, that the fun really begins. His energy brings the whole production up a notch as he guides us through Clara’s journey.

Los Angeles Ballet - Ryo Arkai as the Rat King in "The Nutcracker" - Photo: Reed Hutchinson

Los Angeles Ballet – Ryo Arkai as the Rat King in “The Nutcracker” – Photo: Reed Hutchinson

Drosselmeyer brings toys and gifts to all the children including Harlequin & Columbine, danced ably by Cleo Taneja and Nicola Barbarossa, followed by the high flying, Cossack Doll , Marcos Ramirez Castellano and finally The Nutcracker, a capable Santiago Paniagua. Each toy is either carried or wheeled onstage in amusing fashion, which adds to the merriment of the party.

As the party ends, parents, Mrs. Staulbaum, Leah McCall and Mr. Staubaum, Dave Naquin, put a tired Clara to bed with her favorite dolls Marie and The Nutcracker sitting at her bedside.  This is a beautifully rendered moment helped by the moving set designs, the elegant costumes by Mikael Melbye and the effective lighting by Penny Jacobus, as executed by Tyler Lambert-Perkins. We feel the love and tenderness that surrounds Clara.

Los Angeles Ballet - Petra Conti & Tigran Sargsyan in The Nutcracker - Photo: Reed Hutchinson

Los Angeles Ballet – Petra Conti & Tigran Sargsyan in “The Nutcracker” – Photo: Reed Hutchinson

In a waking nightmare Clara dreams wicked mice surround her. The Nutcracker summons the soldiers and the battle ensues. With funny choreography and adorable children this is a delightful fight. Ryo Arkai is hilarious as the defeated Mouse King drawing big laughs from the audience. The battle over, Drosselmeyer leads Clara and her Nutcracker Prince into the Land Of Snow where they are greeted by dancing snowflakes. Everything about this sequence is lovely from costumes to choreography and when the glittering snow falls from the sky accompanied by the meltingly beautiful music it’s the perfect closer to Act One.

Los Angeles Ballet - Yuka Iseda & Kenta Shimizu in "The Nutcracker" - Photo: Reed Hutchinson

Los Angeles Ballet – Yuka Iseda & Kenta Shimizu in “The Nutcracker” – Photo: Reed Hutchinson

Act Two opens with a lovely Arabian themed tableau but the expose bogs down until the spirited Drosselmeyer transports Clara and her Nutcracker Prince into the picture. Clara’s doll Marie has come to life in the form of guest artist Yuka Iseda accompanied by her Prince, Kenta Shimizu. Both artists acquit themselves well but it is Iseda who shines here with elevated technique and a sparkling presence. Spanish dancers, Hannah Keene, Shelby Whallon, Kohei Matsuda, Kahyl Wrather work hard but struggle with some of the faster moves. “The Arabian” danced by Petra Conti and Tigran Sargsyan, is an interesting change of pace and though these two are technically strong the work feels calculated, as if the dancers are making all the right moves but do not really feel it in their bodies. Again, Harlequin & Columbine, Cleo Taneja, Nicola Barbarossa perform with verve but bringing down the house are the Russian dancers, Marcos Ramirez Castellano with Ryo Araki and Cesar Ramirez Castellano. These three go for the gusto with impressive jumps, tricks and pizazz. Clearly they are a crowd favorite. Another crowd pleaser was the gingerbread house/skirt of Mother Ginger, a game Clay Murray. When the door to the house/skirt opens out comes the children dressed as Hansel and Gretel. This is a clever idea that could work better. An infusion of humor or perhaps the addition of more fairytale characters might lift this moment out of the recital feel and back to the ballet. Still the audience enjoyed it and joined in clapping to the rhythmic music.

The iconic “Waltz of The Flowers” followed. Done with efficiency, clean and appropriate choreography, this was a perfectly pleasant waltz that never quite took flight. The costumes were disappointing and though “sunflowers” are beautiful they to not float on air. Lighter more buoyant costumes would have helped the somewhat stilted choreography. However Kate Inoue, shines as the Rose in the midst of the flowers.

Los Angeles Ballet Ensemble in "The Nutcracker" - Photo: Reed Hutchinson

Los Angeles Ballet Ensemble in “The Nutcracker” – Photo: Reed Hutchinson

The splendiferous music of the Pas De Deux brought Yuka Iseda and Kenta Shimizu back to the stage for the triumphant final dance. Both are confident dancers and were excellent here though a bit more passion and less presentation would be warranted given the depth of the music.

Neary and Christensen have created an enchanting “Nutcracker” full of humor, warmth and lovely dancing. They are smart with their choreography and work to the ability of the dancers. The company is very well rehearsed and dances with precision and pleasure. Because Neary and Christensen know how to tell a story this “Nutcracker” is a joy and though it does not quite soar it certainly pleases.

Soloists & Company Dancers included: Laura Chachich, Jasmine Perry McKenzie Byrne, Cassidy Cocke, Brigitte Edwards, Lilly Fife, Kate Inoue, Hannah Keene, Julianne Kinasiewicz, Cassidy McAndrew, Leah McCall, Madeline McMillin,Brittany Rand, Linnea Swarting, Cleo Taneja, Shelby Whallon Ryo Araki, Shintaro Akana, Nicola Barbarossa, Joshua Brown, Dallas Finley,Tate Lee, Kohei Matsuda, Clay Murray, Dave Naquin, Santaigo Paniagua, Cesar Ramirez, Marcos Ramirez, David Renaud, Joshua Schwartz, and Kahlyl Wrather.

The Los Angeles Ballet Trainees were Katia Abramovich, Eleanor Chaney, Emma DeStasio, Camille Goldsborough, Sydney Jones, and Luna Weintraub.

Children courtesy of Los Angeles Ballet School included: Vienna Bourgault, Sorcha Cinadr, Spencer Collins, Lilah Desage, Poppy Gagnon, Zachary Li, Luna Nelson, Karen McClanahan, Ivy Rendon-Gray, Katelyn Shopp, Delilah Stoddard, and Rosalie Winters.

The Los Angeles Ballet will perform “The Nutcracker” on Saturday December 11 – 12, 2021 at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center; Friday, December 17 – 19, 2021 at Royce Hall, UCLA; and December 23 – 26, 2021 at the Dolby Theatre with the Los Angeles Ballet Orchestra. For more information, please click HERE.

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To learn more about the Los Angeles Ballet, please visit their website.

To learn more about The Alex Theatre, please visit its website.

Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle.

Featured image: Los Angeles Ballet – Kate Inoue & Spencer Collins in “The Nutcracker” – Photo: Reed Hutchinson

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A note about and for The Alex Theatre:

Unfortunately once inside the theater many people ignored the mandatory mask rule and felt they could wear them around their chin or not at all. The house was packed and because eating and drinking are allowed in the theater this was yet another excuse not to wear the mask. There was no enforcement on the part of the staff at The Alex. This made for very uncomfortable viewing.