- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2009

This is the time of year that invites thoughts of a babe in a manger, a jolly red-coated Santa sliding down a chimney, a toy nutcracker that turns into a handsome prince.

The Kennedy Center began its celebration of the season last night with what has been the most magical and luminous version of “The Nutcracker,” the ballet created by George Balanchine 55 years ago and being danced here for the first time by the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Dance is the most evanescent art, and in some ways, this “Nutcracker” is a flawed rendering of what Balanchine created. The choreographer gave us a picture of a bustling Christmas party, with well-behaved little girls, boisterous young boys and a mysterious guest, Herr Drosselmeier, who brought gifts for the children, including a toy nutcracker for the little heroine, Clara.

That scene is lively and suffused with a party atmosphere, but the Pennsylvanians have jacked it up as if simple domestic happiness weren’t enough. The children are so rehearsed that they have lost their childlike charm and look like hardened professionals - impressive, but losing much of their innate appeal.

The company has new scenery by Peter Horne and costumes by Judanna Lynn that are bold and vibrant, but occasionally strident.

Drosselmeier is sometimes portrayed as mysterious or slightly menacing, but Maximilien Baud plays him as a matinee idol, a scene-stealer who’s never still, injecting himself into every action.

In the first act, however, there are two genuinely grand young scene-stealers: Lucas Tischler, a pint-size charmer who plays the mischievous role of Fritz with gusto and finely honed skill, and, as the Nutcracker, Peter Well. He handily delivers one of the longest pantomime sequences in all of ballet - his retelling of the fight with the Mouse King and how Clara saved his life by throwing her slipper at his opponent.

Basically, in the first act, one longs for the sweetness and unforced naturalness that was everywhere in Balanchine’s original production. From then on, however, the Pennsylvanians give an impressive performance. The first real dancing in the ballet, the snow scene at the end of the first act, is airy and zestful. Then, dance takes precedence over drama as Clara and her Nutcracker Prince journey to the Land of Sweets.

There they are met by a dozen Angels, young girls gliding swiftly over the stage in flowing formations, followed by tasty groups of Hot Chocolate, Candy Canes, Marzipan and a solo, Coffee, danced by Riolama Lorenzo.

That builds to the dancing climax with a solo for Amy Aldridge, the Dew Drop Fairy; the luscious Waltz of the Flowers; and the radiance of Tchaikovsky’s musical climax for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, danced by Julie Diana with Zachary Hench as her strong, supportive partner.

The ballet concludes with the final dramatic image of Clara and her Prince in a sleigh that carries them up and off into the sky.

WHAT: Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”

WHEN: 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

TICKETS: $47 to $115

PHONE: 202/467-4600

WEB SITE: www.kennedy- center.org

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