CAMBRIDGE — The role of Dr. Drosselmeyer, Clara’s godpapa, has always been central to José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s “Nutcracker.” In part, that’s surely because it’s usually been taken by Mateo himself. But in this year’s production, the company’s 26th, Mateo is stepping aside and the Dance Complex’s new director, Peter DiMuro, is playing Drosselmeyer, a role he danced for Boston Ballet back in 1988. Thursday evening at the Sanctuary Theatre in Cambridge, he proved worthy of filling Mateo’s shoes.
The appeal of Mateo’s “Nutcracker” has always been its intimacy. In the first act, Drosselmeyer and Clara are front and center, a primacy they’re not always accorded in other versions of this holiday classic. In the story that inspired the ballet, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 novella “Nutcracker and Mouse King,” Drosselmeyer’s nephew has been turned into an ugly nutcracker by the Mouse King’s mother. Drosselmeyer is hoping that Clara, like the princess who kisses the frog, will take the nutcracker to her heart and break the spell.
There’s no nephew in this “Nutcracker,” but Drosselmeyer does shepherd Clara through the first act and into the second, and at the end of the ballet, he takes her home. He first appears, in his workshop, against a backdrop of watches, for he’s a watchmaker, a wielder of time who in a sense takes Clara into the future.
Clara in this version is an only child, so she doesn’t have to share the spotlight with brother Fritz. What’s more, she’s the heroine of the battle scene. In most productions of “The Nutcracker,” Clara distracts the Mouse King by throwing a shoe at him so the Nutcracker Prince can kill him. In this one, Clara kills the Mouse King — actually he’s the Rat King — herself, grabbing a rifle from one of the soldiers and bopping him on the head with the butt while the Nutcracker Prince lies unconscious. She has a number of solos in the party scene, where her parents fade into the background and Drosselmeyer plays the role of her fairy godfather, and another at the beginning of the second act, when she enters the Kingdom of the Sweets. After that, she and Drosselmeyer disappear, which is odd and a little disappointing. I wonder why they couldn’t at least be onstage to watch the divertissements.
This has always been a colorful “Nutcracker.” The five party ladies sport gowns of various styles and bright hues, all hoop skirts over pantalettes. The dozen soldiers are dressed handsomely in red and blue with gold trim; the ladies in the Waltz of the Flowers come on in troupes of yellow, pink, and purple. The dancers have to scramble in and out of costumes. Thursday, Amanda Kostreva was first a dream fairy, then a party parent, then a snowflake, then one of the two Chinese dancers in Tea, and finally one of the pink flowers — and that was typical, at least for the ladies in the company. The changes were all managed well. There’s also a huge number of children in this production; Thursday’s group did themselves proud.
I wish I could be as positive about the actual dancing. As in past years, there was fuzzy ensemble, and the occasional falling out of turns, or off pointe. At the beginning of the second act, dancers were running into one another. Lifts were modest, turns were slow and not always vertical, movement in general was heavy, and pointe shoes thumped the floor on a regular basis. The most rewarding performances came from Kostreva and Brittany Bush in Tea and Lauren Ganther and Lane Blue in the Trepak. But 14-year-old Leila Dixon was a gracious, radiant Clara with a winning smile. And DiMuro started the evening off with a wink at the audience, as if to let us know that his Drosselmeyer would be in charge throughout — which he was.Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.