You know it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas when the Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents its enchanted Nutcracker.
The eight-show annual holiday production, which runs until Dec. 29, opened Thursday night, whisking children of all ages into bygone days of innocence.
Choreographed in 1999 by Galina Yordanova and Nina Menon, the 124-minute (including intermission) story ballet set in 1913 Winnipeg tells the tale of young Clara, gifted with a wooden nutcracker by her godfather Drosselmeier on Christmas Eve. After she falls asleep, she dreams of journeying through magical forests and kingdoms to dance with her handsome Nutcracker Prince.
Set to Tchaikovsky's iconic score with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra led by Tadeusz Biernacki, the quintessentially Canadian production also features games of street hockey, snow angels, Royal Canadian Mounted Police and furry Busby hats, with costumes designed by Paul Daigle.
It's also always a pleasure to see Brian Perchaluk's resplendent sets, including a grand mansion and pastel-infused kingdom, effectively lit in rosy hues by Michael J. Whitfield.
Nutcracker productions are the bread and butter of most ballet companies -- helping to fuel the rest of the season's programming -- and often the first ballet ever seen by patrons.
This one has steadily evolved over the years, including the addition of eight adorable cherubs a few years back, with the kid count -- culled from the RWB School's recreational and professional division students -- now numbering more than 40 among the cast. The youthful performers consistently draw oohs and ahhs from the audience, whether they are baking a frothy cake as angels or scurrying across the stage as baby mice and hurling oversized vegetables during the Act I battle scene.
Kudos to Samara Rittinger (Young Clara), Julianne Chartier (Dieter) and Liam Saito (Julien) for their confident performances, with Rittinger and Saito's delicate, tween-awkward waltz particularly touching as they realize their blushing fondness for each other.
Principal dancer Amanda Green (with alternating casts) shone as leading character Clara, exuding poise and regal authority so right for this role. Her exquisite port de bras and strong musicality were given full rein during her climactic pas de deux, including soaring lifts performed with Liang Xing's Nutcracker Prince that became its own poetry in motion.
Xing imbued his character with the requisite nobility, his expressive face and lean physique, including gracefully long limbs, adding refinement to the Russian-based choreography. His pairing with Green felt wholly organic, creating a new lyrical partnering equation that will be eagerly watched in the future.
Eric Nipp brought animated humour to his flamboyant Drosselmeier, saving the day with a magical Christmas tree that grows sky-high, as well as performing his own Gigue with Anna O'Callaghan's gracious Sugar Plum Fairy. Serena Sandford also kicked up her heels as the coltish Aunt Josephine -- a singer from Montreal -- during the lively party scene.
Cleverly, this particular Nutcracker also celebrates Canada's multicultural heritage (although the host of folkloric dances from different lands also exists in more traditional productions), reflected even in the growing ethnic diversity of the 74-year-old troupe itself.
The lovely, lilting Waltz of the Flowers performed by the corps de ballet dancers was matched in beauty only by the glittering Snowflakes during Act I's Magical Forest scene, underscored by the sweet voices of the Winnipeg Boys' Choir. The mysterious Arabian dance proved another highlight, contrasting with the perky intricacy of the Chinese dance, bounding leaps of the Russian and Spanish ensembles.
Filbert the bear was also back; his waddling for Christmas treats drew delighted giggles from the crowd.
A few technical malfunctions, including wonky curtain drops and a misplaced set piece, marred an otherwise smooth production. Seeing the gorgeous tableau that caps the ballet's Act II divertissement with its ethereal dancers held aloft, only to glimpse them being dropped unceremoniously back to earth, momentarily broke the spell.
Many Nutcrackers have now come and gone. One could easily cry, "Bah, humbug," and grow weary of its oft-told story. However, as with Young Clara, if one takes a leap of faith, its poignant tale of childhood dreams only deepens and grows richer in meaning, truly reflecting the wonder of the season.