Cambridge — For professional ballet companies and teaching studios around the world, annual “Nutcracker” productions often are so popular that they serve as the cash cows than fund much of the rest of the year’s endeavors. That’s easy to believe after seeing the enthusiastic sold-out house for José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s show Friday night at the Sanctuary Theatre. Anchored by a core of solid professionals and complemented by dozens of beaming children, Mateo’s streamlined version of the ballet to taped music has a warm and intimate homespun appeal, with dancing that is up close and personal.
Mateo takes a slightly different slant on the familiar narrative. It opens with Clara’s dream of a mysterious gift delivered by fairies dancing around a brightly decorated tree. That gift turns out to be a Nutcracker the magician Dr. Drosselmeyer believes is actually his grandnephew, turned into a doll by an evil sorcerer. But all the other important traditional elements are there, including the Christmas tree that grows before our eyes, the adorably mischievous mice who tangle with heroic soldiers, dancing snowflakes, and a second act full of colorful character dances.
Mateo’s choreography seems fairly familiar and predictable, firmly grounded in classical ballet vocabulary. In fact, given the scope of the production, it would have been nice to see Mateo unleash his imaginative flair to give some aspects of the ballet more distinctive flavor and originality, especially the character dances.
However, one welcome distinction of this production is the substantive role of Clara, for whom Mateo gives technically challenging, sophisticated pointe work. For Friday night’s performance, Cambridge resident Amy Chan, a freshman at Beaver Country Day, brought considerable charm and poise to the role, breezing through lyrical turns, arabesques, and fleet footwork and jumps. And Mateo’s choreography for the two mechanical dolls, Harlequin (Junichi Fukuda) and Columbine (the spirited, technically assured Haruka Tamura) is delightfully comic, seeded with robotic gestures as the dolls refuse to be corralled. As Dr. Drosselmeyer, Jim Banta was capable and convincing, but slightly one-dimensional, more benevolent than mysterious. (When Mateo danced the role, he was a charismatic, commanding figure combining kindness with a flair for intrigue.)
Ivaylo Alexiev was dashing as the Nutcracker Prince, and Madeleine Bonn was regal without being icy as the Snow Queen. As snow showered from the rafters, the Snowflakes streamed through eye-catching patterns, the women’s airy tulle floating on air as they swirled and spun or were lifted high by four Snow Princes.
Act 2 opened with a lovely celestial scene, as tiny white-gowned Cherubs and older Angels glided through a cloudlike haze. Angie DeWolf was elegantly gracious yet warm and full-bodied as the Sugar Plum Fairy, with soft arms floating atop crisp footwork and brilliant turns. She displayed good chemistry with Cavalier Spencer Doru Keith, who combined attentive partnering with solos featuring solid turns and lofty, long-lined jetés with buttery landings.
Bonn was another standout in the sinuous “Coffee/Arabian.” Partnered by Rick Vigo, her luxurious extensions, sensuous arms, and supple torso created an air of exotic mystery. Janelle Gilchrist and Lane Blue gave a spirited performance of the split leaps and brisk turns of “Trepak/Russian.” The “Waltz of the Flowers” could have used more lush fluidity and whirl; with frequent entrances and exits, it felt a bit too fractured to match the lyrical majesty of the music. However, the choreography for Mother Ginger was just right. The audience was clapping along to the music even before a dozen precious Polichinelles skipped out from underneath her voluminous skirts.