NEW YORK — The glistening Christmas tree is growing again, up to the rafters. The confetti snowflakes are swirling anew.
The Nutcracker Prince has resumed battling the multi-headed Mouse King — and winning, with young Marie’s help. And the newly crowned princess and her prince are arriving triumphantly again in the Land of Sweets, to be entertained by the grownups.
After being sidelined during the bleak pandemic winter of 2020, George Balanchine’s magical “Nutcracker” for New York City Ballet is back, reminding us that this nearly 70-year-old production remains the gold standard for Nutcrackers everywhere. And it’s looking fresh, somehow.
At a performance last week, early in the run at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, the audience seemed just as enthusiastic as in past years, even if it was a mostly adult crowd. Because schools were still in session, but also because of vaccine restrictions limiting audience members to those old enough to be vaccinated or to younger children with a negative PCR test, the average age has risen.
But that doesn’t mean the childish wonder has dissipated. There were still gasps, as when the giant tree at the Stahlbaum house grew higher and higher, or when the Nutcracker Prince suddenly shed his wooden self and transformed into a handsome human prince. There were still laughs when the Mouse King succumbed dramatically in battle, feet flexed stiffly in the air, and when Mother Ginger ambled onstage with her huge skirt full of spritely Polichinelles.
There are changes onstage, too: Costumes have been remade, to accommodate the children in the cast who are older (and taller) this year, also because of vaccine rules. (The costumes have been specially designed so they can be altered back for younger kids in future years.) The ankle-length party dresses in Act I were definitely looking crisp. And the children in the cast looked more mature, adding to the depth of their acting. This year, they were cast from ballet schools around the city, not just the NYCB-affiliated School of American Ballet, which had the effect of making the stage look, happily, more diverse.
Even the opening strains of the overture evoke an audible buzz, perhaps because Tchaikovsky’s music is so familiar — many audience members come every year, and some, like this reviewer, even performed in it at some point in their lives (fourth row, toy soldiers, the ones holding the swords). And then the curtain rises and we meet Marie and her young brother Fritz, excitedly awaiting the holiday party.
Athena Shevorykin was an expressive Marie, and Reed Ouimet an upbeat companion as the prince. As for the adults, on this night the Sugarplum Fairy was danced by Indiana Woodward — all warmth and excitement as she greeted the little angels in the beginning of Act II, and expansive as she danced the pas de deux with partner Anthony Huxley, dramatic fish dives and all.
Best of all, the brief but exhausting, exhilarating role of Dewdrop — every ballerina’s favorite “Nutcracker” role, it seems — was danced by NYCB veteran Megan Fairchild, who flitted around the stage with impressive velocity and lightness as she led the Waltz of the Flowers.
Christopher Grant made an impression in the Hot Chocolate variation, and the Tea section — which has been improved by dropping some unfortunate stereotypical movements — was notable for the high-jumping Sebastian Villarini-Velez. Roman Mejia made for a virtuosic lead Candy Cane.
And then there were the Polichinelles, escaping from under Mother Ginger’s skirt to dance, sharply as ever, in what may be the most charming children’s choreography in all of ballet.
The whole shebang comes together at the end for a brief reprise of each variation. And then, everyone gathers to say farewell to the prince and princess, who board a wooden sleigh and ride high up over the stage on their way home.
As everyone waved goodbye — from candy canes to marzipan shepherdesses to the Sugarplum Fairy and her cavalier — it suddenly felt more like a family affair this year than ever before.