Gelsey Kirkland Ballet Nutcracker Review: Nuances Abound

Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s Nutcracker is a wonderful, multifaceted production that pays dividends from multiple viewings. I’ve seen the production over the past three years, but pick up interesting features every time I see it. The Kirkland Nutcracker conveys rich detail, amplified by impressive young dancers. The legendary ballerina founded the Gelsey Kirkland Academy in 2010 with a mission to foster a rebirth of dramatic storytelling in ballet. The dancers were true to the mission Thursday evening, with expressive, dramatic portrayals filled with nuance (for photos from the dress rehearsal, see my photography website

Revelations I picked up at the opening night performance include:

  • The importance of the blue ribbon used to repair the injured toy Nutcracker. The symbolism enters the production after Fritz tears off the arm of Marie’s (Clara in other productions) toy Nutcracker. Drosselmeyer attaches the broken arm with a blue handkerchief. The handkerchief makes another appearance as a much larger version that Marie uses to heal the life-sized dream version Nutcracker after the ferocious battle with the Mouse King. At the end of the performance, Marie wakes up under the Christmas tree, with the toy Nutcracker by her side. She sees the large-scale handkerchief on the floor with a fully repaired toy Nutcracker. Seeing the large handkerchief, she looks up in disbelief as if to say “Maybe that wasn’t a dream after all!”
  • In Act I, toy Nutcrackers are stored in a small cabinet. During the fantasy battle scene, a large-scale cabinet matching the smaller version is rolled out, with real life Nutcracker soldiers going down a slide to enter battle.
  • The battle scene is filled with wonderful items. My favorite is a soldier holding cheese bait on a stick, leading mice near the barrel of a large cannon as it fires on the clueless mice.

As is expected from a studio company with young dancers, the company has experienced some departures as previous leads Dawn Gierling Milatan, Erez Milatan, and Anderson Souza are no longer listed on the Kirkland website. This year’s leads in the first cast are diminutive Spaniard Nerea Barrondo as Marie and Keisuke Nishikawa as the Nutcracker Prince. Keisuke was strong in the technical dimensions, but fell short on the dramatic side. His dramatic portrayal as a dedicated Prince enthralled by his newfound love was lacking as he generally had a look filled with concentration and concern. Keisuke was on firmer ground in his solos. He has a great vertical jump and put his talent to good use with big air double tours to nice soft landings in plié, lofty tour de reins (barrel turns), double cabriole derriére and unique double saut de basques in which he extended his lead led before hitting a retiré position, a nice innovation. Keisuke was also solid on his turns with a controlled pirouette á la seconde section, turning in to four or five pirouettes to a solid lunge. Overall, high quality solo work from Keisuke.

Nerea was particularly strong in the battle scene as a frightened girl. Her partnership with Keisuke is a work in process, technically good but needed more emotion. Her technique was fine although she lacked delicacy and subtly on some of her jumps.

Natalia Sheptalova and Koki Yamaguchi

Natalia Sheptalova and Koki Yamaguchi. Click for more photos.

I’m a big fan of the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet Nutcracker, choreographed by Co-Artistic Director Michael Chernov after renowned Kirov Ballet choreographer, Vasili Vainonen. I like that this version does not have a dual boy and man Nutcracker, sticking to a single grownup Prince. In a fierce battle with the evil Mouse King, it takes a man to do the job. Another attraction of the Kirkland production is the energetic doll and divertissemnent dances. For some reason, choreography for these dances at NYCB and ABT restrain the dancers, forcing them into bland, simple steps where they don’t do very much. Not so with Kirkland Ballet as the choreography puts their young talent on display. Standout performances Thursday included:

  • Kaito Yamamoto in the Mortal Time doll solo in Act I with impressive jeté cloche en tournant;
  • Kaito in the Chinese dance with Katerina Schweitzer. He displayed a number of high-flying pike jumps, a nice turn section, and controlled double tours.
  • Koki Yamaguchi and Natalia Sheptalova in the campy and vigorous Russian dance. I’ve enjoyed Koki’s dancing over the past several years with his great technique and abundant energy; his rapid turns in second with foot flexed on Thursday was impressive. Natalia’s dancing was filled with great gusto.
  • Johnny Almeida was mysterious as Drosselmeyer as he led the story line. Johnny, who has played the Nutcracker Prince in previous years, is always expressive with outsized gestures and expressions.

Gelsey Kirkland Nutcracker continues next week, with performances Thursday through Sunday at the GK Arts Center in DUMBO, Brooklyn. I look forward to seeing the second cast with Nina Yoshida as Marie and Koki as the Nutcracker Prince, a couple that I enjoyed immensely last year. Ticket prices range from $20 to $59 for adults and $10 for children.