Guarding the entrance to a world of magic and fantasy, a pair of shining Christmas trees flank the stage of the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown, where New Jersey Ballet opened its annual run of “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 14.
At the side of the stage stands an antique grandfather clock. The hour is near, the clock tells us, when a series of curtains will rise, drawing us deep into the mystery of this wondrous holiday spectacle. And as the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra begins the overture, we hear the ghosts of children skipping and playing in Tchaikovsky’s most delightful score.
This music sets the tone, capturing the eagerness of the children, who, when not distracted by their games, yearn for the parlor doors to open, revealing a splendid scene packed with toys, gifts and treats of all kinds. The opulence of the 19th-century drawing room on Christmas Eve is overwhelming. Yet the tale’s young heroine, Clara, will leave its cozy warmth behind, following her imagination into the icy wilderness of the forest and beyond into the heavenly precincts of the Kingdom of Sweets.
Ultimately, The Nutcracker” is not about the holiday rituals of giving and getting, or the sweets, or any prize that one can hold. Instead, this ballet celebrates the transformational power of dreams, plunging Clara into the midst of a fantastic battle between Mice and Toy Soldiers, testing her bravery, and striking the first sparks of love in her heart when her Nutcracker doll becomes a handsome prince. This Romantic vision has the power of a cataclysm. When it erupts, even the most elaborate bourgeois festivities crumble and sink from view.
New Jersey Ballet never fails to do this marvelous story justice. In the first act, we can savor the expertise of old troupers like Humberto Teixeira, in the role of the eccentric inventor Herr Drosselmeyer, his snow-capped hair electrified and his eyes wide with intrigue as he performs magic tricks and mimes the tale of Nutcracker and Mouse King. Juxtaposed with this pungent characterization is the freshness of the youngest dancers, especially Julie Fawcett, a musical performer with an expansive style who played Clara on opening night. Adults will smile at this heroine’s naivete. At the party’s end, Clara rushes forward to embrace Drosselmeyer, but when his Nephew (Justin Estelle) kisses her hand the shy girl reels backward, leaving the stage in an attitude of prayer.
Only when Tchaikovsky has wiped his slate clean — abandoning the bustle of party preparations; the galop and the stately figures of the Grandfather’s Dance; and the battle scene with its desperate charges and bugle cries — is Clara able to meet her beloved, unabashed, to the strains of music that suggests infinity.
The Nutcracker Prince then takes Clara to the Land of Sweets, and there, in Act II, her imagination runs wild again, this time adopting the artistic form of a delicious suite of dances. Notable performances on Dec. 14 came from Gabriella Noa, relaxed yet generous with her energy in the Spanish dance; and from Jackson Ferreira and Albina Ghazaryan, in the sinuous Arabian Dance. While Ferreira turns light cartwheels, Ghazaryan cinches her tiny waist tighter and tighter, balancing on pointe and raising her back leg gradually in “attitude.” Leaping and twisting in the air, Esnel Ramos Hernandez gives a robust and joyful account of the Russian Trepak.
The suite culminates in the Grand Pas de Deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. It begins with a languorous, supported adagio that gives Risa Mochizuki the opportunity to display the purity of her line with legs unfolding gently or snapping into maximum extension. Her variation, in contrast, highlights small, flashing movements of the ballerina’s satin-clad feet. In his own variation, Mochizuki’s Cavalier, Yuuki Yamamoto, displays an elastic jump and clean “batterie,” but elegantly refrains from forcing his athleticism.
Nonetheless, the highlight of the performance, for this observer, was the Waltz of the Flowers, a blooming effusion of charm with Mari Sugawa’s lovely Dewdrop at the center of the sweeping ensemble. From the moment she enters, with steps that seem to whisper, Sugawa gives a performance of exceptional tenderness, hopping lightly in arabesque; seemingly riding a cushion of air in “chaîné” turns; and maintaining her gentle poise even in a sudden change of direction, where she sustains and extends the movement.
The whole cast returns to bid a cheerful farewell to Clara as she departs for home in a flying gondola with a bird’s-head prow. She will awake the next morning, still a little girl but strengthened and matured, prepared in dreams for love’s great adventure yet to come.
Remaining performances of “The Nutcracker” at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown are at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21; 1 p.m. Dec. 22-24 and 26-27; and 6 p.m. Dec. 22-23 and 26. Visit mayoarts.org.
Throughout the holiday season, the theater is holding a food drive for the Community Soup Kitchen of Morristown. Attendees are encouraged to bring non-perishable food items and/or personal items such as socks, shampoo or soap, to donate.