An unseasonably warm December morning lent an air of merriment to Swarthmore this Saturday. The sky was topaz blue and the sun was shining. Even Charlie, the venerable white horse who pulls the carriage for Swarthmore’s Home for the Holidays celebration, seemed to have a spring in his step. Though local shops displayed helpful signs reminding us how many days until Hanukah and Christmas, no one actually seemed to feel pressed for time.
Lucky ticket-holders to Lori Ardis Ballet Company’s performance of The Nutcracker exemplified the holiday mood, nodding to each other with a twinkle of anticipation in their eyes.
Once inside, we were greeted by Mrs. Ardis herself. Just before the performance began, she stepped into the spotlight to share a joyful explanation of what we were about to see, so that even the smallest audience members were informed and enthralled. Then the lights went down, and the Christmas tree was illuminated.
At LABC, we are regularly spoiled with beautiful technique and clever choreography. This company has proven again and again how resilient they are, how well they work together as a team, how much endurance and discipline they have. From the tiniest Ginger to the Sugar Plum Fairy, we have come to expect nothing short of perfection.
But the wonder of The Nutcracker is in the heart as well as the feet.
Choreographers Lori Ardis and Amber Flynn keep the joy in The Nutcracker by re-choreographing the entire ballet to take advantage of the unique talents of the dancers playing the roles.
Every. Single. Year.
Their herculean effort paid off in spades this season, with a performance filled with excitement, wonder and humor. (Would you like to learn more about this mother-daughter choreography team? Click here for a short interview!)
From the first note of the party scene, this year’s production capitalized on the personalities of the dancers. First act highlights were William Hodges as Drosselmeyer – leaping and swirling his cape, even breaking the fourth wall at times to bring the audience into the joke, the Gypsy dance performed with towering energy by (real life siblings) Will and Ellen McCullough, and Anna Si’s hilarious performance as the mother of seven small and very energetic children.
Mia Davis is a dancer I’ve watched grow up on the stage of LABC. Her genuine smile has warmed the stage from the corps throughout the last five productions I’ve had the pleasure to see. It was a joy to watch her wear Clara’s iconic pink dress. Mia’s Clara was curious, kind and played younger than other dancers we’ve seen in the role in recent years. Nowhere was this more apparent than in her quite realistic interactions with her younger sister (the Fritz role) danced with gusto by Elizabeth Si. The two had great chemistry and had the audience tittering on more than one occasion.
And Kevin Gardner was the perfect Nutcracker prince to suit her. In spite of his obvious athleticism and the extraordinary physical demands of the fight scene with half a dozen very energetic mice, followed immediately by a pas de deux with a series of complicated lifts, Gardner’s performance appeared to be effortless. His kind smiles for Clara were sigh-worthy, and his bearing was never anything short of regal.
Act Two found Clara and the Nutcracker Prince regaled with dances from all over the Land of Sweets. Each dance was spectacular, and the members of the audience found themselves smiling and leaning forward, until, that is, the Arabian dance.
Anni Si and Donn Guthrie took the stage with so much power the air went out of the room. These two have partnered many times before and their trust in each other was exploited to the breaking point in this sumptuously crafted pas de deux. The power struggle played out between them was palpable, and just as a deft lift had our hearts in our mouths, with Si suspended nearly at the ceiling, Guthrie would remove one hand, holding her aloft with the other, as if the two had only been toying with us all along and he could have lifted her with his mind.
When they left the stage, my heart ached with sympathy for the dancer who would have to perform afterward.
I should have known that Ardis and Flynn would hand those dancers the keys to the kingdom. And Will McCollough and the very expressive Eleanor Runiewicz knew just what to do with them. Assisted by four small sheep, McCollough and Runiewicz had us all in hysterics as the shepherdess lost and found her sheep again and again to everyone’s delight.
Mother Ginger, played with panache by Denise Hodges, delighted us when her hoard of adorable children burst from her skirt and danced with such vivacity they left us all cheering for more.
The lovely Maia Virgil danced the Sugar Plum Fairy with a gentle sweetness that was appropriate to her character’s name. Cavalier, Donn Guthrie, partnered her and the two were absolutely charming to watch.
All the costumes worn in the production are made by staff and volunteers. The costuming triumph of the night was the Flower dance. Gorgeous swathes of tulle were made into wing-like petals that floated and sank as if they were dancers in their own right. Lucky Flower dancers Geraldine Leech, Ellen McCullough, Anna Si and Linnea Si wore the glamorous smiles to match. And among them, Grace Hodges, as the Dew Drop Fairy, sparkled and flew. Grace has always been a force of nature on the LABC stage. It was thrilling to see her in this exciting role.
When the lights came up and it was all over, the audience lingered – searching for the right thing to say to each other, to Mrs. Ardis who was there to bid us farewell, and to ourselves.
But I believe our universal sentiment was summed up in the words of one small attendant, who simply whispered to herself, “Wow.”
Tickets for this year’s The Nutcracker are completely sold out. If you’d like advice on how to score those tickets for next year, be sure to check out my interview with the choreographers here for tips!
Did seeing the Nutcracker at LABC make YOU want to dance too? Swarthmore Ballet Theatre, LABC’s training ground, offers classes for children and adults. Stop by their website here to learn more.
Full disclosure: I’m the mom of two Gingers and a Mouse/Party Child/Page in this production. Click here to find out what it’s like to have a child enrolled in ballet classes or in a production.