CAMBRIDGE — Sometimes it’s just a tiny detail that makes one’s heart beat a little faster. In the first act of José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s 25th annual production of “The Nutcracker” (at the Sanctuary Theatre in Cambridge through Sunday, and then at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester Dec. 22-24), Clara is bourréeing about the stage with the nutcracker her Godpapa Drosselmeyer has given her. One of the little boys who’s come to her parents’ party is running after her and trying to snatch it away, but whenever he gets too close, she gives a little tendu kick at him without missing a bourrée beat.
America is, as Jennifer Fisher’s 2003 book has it, “Nutcracker Nation,” and our productions of Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic are, like America itself, a study in diversity. Local choreographer José Mateo’s chamber version, with a reduced cast and taped music, has a pleasing innocence about it, and many admirable details. The panel that functions as a curtain uses vivid colors to depict old-fashioned objects like a pocket watch and books from the 19th century on a dark-green background with a paisley pattern. Drosselmeyer appears against a backdrop of clocks; the second act is played against a backdrop of Ionic Greek columns. In his “Waltz of the Flowers,” Mateo dresses his dancers in shades of pink, yellow, and purple instead of having them all wear the same color. And in the opening act, at the Silberhaus party, the only woman who’s not sporting pantalettes under her hoop skirt is the daring one in the bright red off-the-shoulder dress.
Mateo’s appearance as Drosselmeyer has always been a highlight of his “Nutcracker.” On Friday, however, the role was played by Matt White, who looked too young and, with not a hair out of place, seemed to be auditioning for a new Disney musical called “Drosselmeyer!” There are some other oddities in the production. Mark Kehlet Schou’s Harlequin is dressed in a white shirt and black tie, as if he were a Pierrot. Ivaylo Alex-iev’s Nutcracker Prince wears no nutcracker head and doesn’t move mechanically, so he seems like a real person even before Clara kills the Mouse King (by bopping him on the head with one of the soldiers’ rifles) and breaks the spell he’s under. And when the second-act divertissements begin, Clara and the Nutcracker Prince run off and aren’t seen again till the end, when Drosselmeyer appears out of nowhere and shepherds her off.
Most of all, I wish the dancing were more solid and more exciting. The ensemble Friday was better than last year, and there was less falling off pointe. But the technical level was modest, and in the finale, David Du-bois’s Cavalier and Kristy Anne Reynolds’s Sugar Plum Fairy exhibited little virtuosity. Dubois did execute a decent manège, and he ended his variation with some nice entrechats six and a double pirouette. Reynolds’s excellence at split-kicking in the air was offset by fuzzy piqué turns and limp fouettés. In her celesta variation, she seemed at odds with the music, in choreography that was simpler than the Petipa/Ivanov original.
But Emma Ward, as both the Snow Queen and the lead dancer in Marzipan, commanded the stage, and she displayed a panache that made up for any technical shortcomings. Schou and Angie DeWolf gave real emotional heat to Arabian as he pursued her about the stage; Patricia Chiang and Jaclyn Sanford were playful and blissfully unstereotyped in Chinese; Doug Baum threw in some fine tours à la seconde in Russian. And the Clara I saw, Cecilia Zevallos, was both innocent and magical.