IN REVIEW | “The Nutcracker’s” spirit is bolstered through the eyes of a child

To get a pure, unadulterated impression of a performance, ask a baby.

Imagine my luck when I found myself sitting next to a 1-year-old girl at this year’s Whidbey Island Dance Theatre’s production of “The Nutcracker” at South Whidbey High School Auditorium.

Such joyous and excited reactions plastered on the face of my young companion throughout most of the performance made the experience an even richer one than I had expected.

“The Nutcracker,” like the entire holiday season, is better when children are around. Certainly, waking up on Christmas morning is much more satisfying when accompanied by those who believe in Santa Claus, just as sitting next to a wide-eyed toddler watching an expanding Christmas tree made the magic of this “Nutcracker” even better.

There is so much to be appreciated in this year’s island Christmas ballet, including the crisp and colorful new Victorian gowns of the women in the party scene, some exquisite new butterfly costumes sporting wonderfully psychedelic wings and a snappy and smart new head for the nutcracker.

But what makes this production so endearing is that the community of actors and dancers who fill out the company for the supernumerary roles that are important to the plot, movement and overall hustle and bustle of every scene, are the fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters of the company and the audience.

So when one of the littlest bumble bees, mice or elves smiles and waves to somebody in the front row, it reflects what the Christmas season is all about: family.

Very little ensemble acting is necessary in Whidbey Island Dance Theatre’s party scene as the dancers seem like a family even before they step on the stage.

One highlight that made my decidedly delighted companion squeal was the excellently staged battle between the plucky Nutcracker, his sharp-footed soldiers and the army of rats and mice that surged behind the Rat King, danced by Jachen Mackner, whose fleet-footed performance was most enjoyable.

Choreographers for this scene were Charlene Brown and Susan Vanderwood, who did a nice job of infusing the famous fight with some new contemporary jumps, lifts and aerial shenanigans. Everyone on the stage during this scene did an outstanding job of maintaining the urgency of the conflict with even the littlest mice pinpointing their focus to the battle and sustaining their portion of the scene.

My little friend’s eyes widened, too, when the Snow Queen, played by company principal dancer Raelani MacLean Kesler, appeared in all her ice-sugared glory. Kesler’s elegant lines were well-matched to those of the Nutcracker Prince (played by guest artist Benjamin Koehl), making the regal-looking couple a pleasure to watch. One may have mistaken Kesler for a professional dancer, so confidently elegant in carriage and presence was she each time she entered and executed a scene.

Koehl, too, was impressive with his incredible athleticism. He was upstaged only once by his wonderfully animated turn with the excellent tumbling elves.

Little miss smiley clappy-hands next to me was appropriately demure when the beautifully mournful strain of Tchaikovsky’s music revealed the grand pas de deux of the Faerie Queen and Forest King, performed by wonderful-to-watch guest artists Jennifer Elder and Daniel Wilkins, with choreography by the dancers themselves and company co-artistic director Susan Campbell Sandri.

I don’t think my very young friend could appreciate the technique necessary to dance this very mature portion of the ballet with its difficult “piques tours rond de salle,” — a series of turns around the stage — or “petit battement suivi sur le coup de pied” — an impossibly difficult movement of the foot — and the grand acrobatic lifts which were a pleasure to see performed so well.

There was a lot to love in this show such as the nicely done acting by Grace Swanson as Clara, especially the perfect sneer on her face when she initially received the nutcracker.

The list goes on with favorite impressions that include Great Uncle Neville’s slapstick; the magic of Drosselmeyer; the always exotic underworld scene of the sea cave and the mesmerizing hanging movements of the mermaids; the leaps of the Nutcracker Prince; the loveliness of the Waltz of the Flowers, the sharp high kicks of the soldiers; the rise of the Christmas tree and the fall of the snow; the flipping bear; the great heaving bosom and perfectly painted lips of Madame Bumble and the look on the face of my tiny girlfriend when she saw the sea turtle moving across the stage.

I’m going to take the lead from my miniature companion and give the Whidbey Island Dance Theatre’s 16th annual production of “The Nutcracker” three clapping hands up. Go see it.

Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 12 and 13, and matinee performances are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 13 and 14.

Tickets are $20 for adults; $18 for seniors; and $15 for youths.

A $5 discount per adult or youth ticket is given to military families, fire/EMS and law enforcement individuals with an ID card.

Box office hours 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday at Whidbey Island Dance Theatre studios at Ken’s Korner in Clinton. Tickets can be ordered by phone at 341-2221 or Click here.

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