Last year, The New York Times dance critic Alastair Macauley traveled the country to take in many versions of The Nutcracker, a sure prescription for Nutcracker burnout. But I would like to think if he'd seen a 30th anniversary performance by the Madison Ballet at the Overture Center, he would have been as charmed as I was. For a medium-sized city, the ballet boasts surprisingly expensive-looking production values, solid dancing and several touches that distinguish it from other humdrum productions, even overcoming its lack of live music.
The Stahlbaums invite their friends over for a Christmas party featuring guests from around the world and the charismatic godfather Drosselmeyer (Sam White, appearing benevolent and spooky at the same time). Dancing, pantomime and toasting ensue before Drosselmeyer opens the doors to a mysterious cabinet, unveiling two dancing dolls (Katy Frederick and Jacob Brooks), at which point the children in the audience let out a collective "whoa."
Drosselmeyer gives his godchild Clara (Maja Peterson) a Nutcracker doll that she adores, but her sassy brother Fritz intentionally breaks it. Erik Stewart as Fritz is quite good at acting snotty, dancing cleanly and looking cute in his Von Trapp Family Singers lederhosen and Tyrolean hat.
After the party winds down, Clara sneaks back downstairs and finds swirling fog, flashing lights, disappearing furniture and a Christmas tree growing to enormous proportions, all engineered by her magical godfather. Adorable teeny mice cavort, replaced by larger and ickier rats and their Rat King. They clash with an army of toy soldiers and the Nutcracker himself, now a grown man (Brian Roethlisberger). Clara retreats to bed after her plucky decision to pelt the Rat King with her slipper and dreams that she is a woman (Marguerite Luksik) who is romanced by the Nutcracker and taken on a magical journey.
They stop in a lovely snow-covered wood, where they dance together -- a sweeping and tender pas de deux that conveys the excitement of young love and is among artistic director W. Earle Smith's most pleasing choreography. Glittery snowflakes dance, their steps alternating between precisely intricate footwork and shifting formations that make you think the dancers are conjuring up windy weather.
Luksik does the famous Sugar Plum fairy solo, and I noticed a more confident approach than last year. She luxuriates in her upper back, with her arms free and calm as her shapely legs work briskly.
Megan Horton, pretty in pale pink as the Dewdrop fairy, leads the flower corps de ballet to the familiar strains of the "Waltz of the Flowers," and here you see that company members and students both dance well, avoiding the amateurish look of some Nutcracker productions.
As Tchaikovsky's score reaches a fever pitch, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Nutcracker prince dance their regal pas de deux. Roethlisberger has nicely articulated feet and legs and an easygoing manner. He does a good job of showing off Luksik's impressive technique, whether he is supporting her in a series of swift turns, dipping her deep into penchée arabesque or securely catching her in the many dramatic lifts.
How festive that we finally got snow, and how festive that so many young girls in the audience were dressed in their holiday finery, looking very chic. For many, The Nutcracker is their introduction to classical ballet, and countless dancers' bios reveal that their interest in dance was piqued at a Nutcracker performance as a child. I can imagine Madison Ballet's version making many local kids think, "I want to do that."