Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Pennsylvania Ballet's The Nutcracker

During December every year the Academy of Music comes alive in way like no other time of year as they celebrate the holidays with the Pennsylvania Ballet's production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. Walk down the Avenue of the Arts, and you'll see families and friends coming from and going to performances - all excited to be there and to be experiencing such a wonderful Philadelphia tradition. We had the opportunity to go ourselves this year. We wanted to find out if seeing The Nutcracker at Christmastime is as amazing as others make it out to be. Well, we walked away with our answer: Yes - absolutely yes!

The Academy of Music itself is a breathtaking building to visit from it's throwback gas lit lamps along it's entrance to the beautiful carpeted staircases rising up from the marbled lobby. Since opening in 1857, the concert hall and opera house has been a center for the arts and culture in the city of Philadelphia and became a National Historical Landmark in 1962. The most amazing part of the building (besides the sets and performers on stage, of course) is the actual interior with it's high rising balconies and unbelievably amazing chandelier.  

The Pennsylvania Ballet Company also has a rich Philadelphia history, being established by Barbara Weisberger, a protegee of George Balanchine, in 1963 and performing The Nutcracker for the first time in 1968.  Over the years, different choreographers' versions were added to the two acts, until 2007 when the entire ballet was performed following Balanchine's choreography - a tradition that has continued every year since.

The Nutcracker is a special experience for the Academy of the Music, as the majority of the audience are families with children younger than the usual ballet attender.  Even so, everything from coat checks and finding bathrooms to locating seats and getting little guests booster chairs happened easily and without a hitch. Moments that could have easily turned hectic for parents and caregivers were instead a relaxing and memorable time. Everyone, older and younger, gathered together in their holiday finery already enjoying this amazing experience, and then the orchestra began and the curtain went up...

(Photo: Alexander Iziliaev)
We aren't extremely knowledgeable about the art of ballet, but even we can recognize good dancing when we see it.  And the Pennsylvania Ballet is very, very good. Breathtaking actually. Coupled with the enthusiastic children in the cast and the stunning set designs, the company is a sight to behold - telling one of the most famous Christmas stories with every movement, turn, and leap. While the second act is usually considered to be the favorite, we have a particular love for Act I as we watch a Christmas party unfold from the excitement of everyone arriving to the relatable end of overtired children being lead and carried off as grown ups give their goodbyes.  Our personal favorites during this scene were the trouble making little Fritz (Rowan Duffy) and the perfectly stiff movements of the lady wind up Harlequin toy (Nayala Lopes). We loved that the Mouse King (Aleksey Babayev) was out in the lobby meeting guests before the performance (as was the Sugar Plum Fairy!), so when the time came for his memorable appearance on stage, his part was fully entertaining rather than scary to the small children in the audience.  The end of Act I was exciting from the mouse battle and the growing Christmas tree to the dazzling winter scene and the Nutcracker transforming into the Little Prince (Aidan Duffy). 

(Photo: Alexander Iziliaev)
After a pleasantly spent intermission, Act II arrived in all its colorful glory with its famous Tchiakovsky Christmas music (Waltz of the Flowers is one of our most favorite classical pieces ever, so seeing a beautiful ballet performance accompanying it was just breathtaking). We entered the World of the Sweets where treats and goodies came alive to dance for Marie (Avi DiEmedio), the Little Prince, and the audience. We love how each song represents a different sweet with dashing Hot Chocolate, adorable Tea, rhythmic Coffee, exciting Candy Canes, spritely Marzipan Shepherdesses, and a hysterical Ginger Mother with her little Polichincelles.  The audience also gets a quick trip around the world as each sweet comes dressed in the traditional garb of and dancing to a different country's style of music.  It would seem even the World of Sweets is diverse with plenty to celebrate and enjoy about each other.

(Photo: Alexander Iziliaev)
Every member of the audience had their favorite sweet (ours being the high flying, hula-hooping lead Candy Cane (Albert Gordon)), and they would go nuts for beloved parts of the dance in a way that I can't imagine happens in a usual ballet performance.  The exquisite Sugar Plum Fairy (Dayesi Torriente) accompanied by her Cavalier (Arian Molina Soca) executed a gorgeous pas de duex that would cause most little audience members to go home that day with ballerina aspirations.  The Nutcracker came to its vibrant conclusion as the World of Sweets all gathered to wave goodbye to Marie and the Little Prince as they soared off in their magical flying sailboat.  There are no words to describe such a beautiful and perfect moment, and we were not the only ones with tears in ours eyes as the lights came up.

(Photo: Alexander Iziliaev)
Should you go and take a loved one to see The Nutcracker this holiday season? Absolutely yes. You should also go next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.  We now get why this is such an important tradition for so many people.  It's a performance that manages to capture how each generation experiences Christmas and puts it on stage for us to see and hear - from adults enjoying being together with friends and family and seeing their children light up to the kids themselves getting lost in a magical candy world and who view a Christmas tree as the potential for so much more adventure and excitement than the adults ever could imagine.  

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker will be running at The Academy of Music through Dec 31st. Check the calendar for specific dates and times and definitely order your tickets as ahead of time as possible!


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  1. We love the Nutcracker and now we love it even more. My son is in the Philadelphia Boys Choir and gets to sing in it. Beautiful way to start to start the holidays.

    1. That's so cool!!!!! We loved that part of the show!

  2. I can still remember being very young (maybe 7 years old) when my Grandmom and Great Aunt brought me to see The Nutcracker! Such a wonderful way to spend the holiday with family :)

  3. Wonderful post! Love your blog and will add it to my blogroll at insideballet.com. Found this posted at The Portland Ballet's website and really liked it--great advice!

    Rachel Withers Ballet Instructor in UK | Certified ballet instructors in UK