Perhaps more than just another holiday tradition, "The Nutcracker" ballet is for many like a dear old friend you see once a year or so who, remarkably, never ages and whose warmth never fails to conjure fond memories.
For a child seeing "The Nutcracker" for the first time, it is an enchanting experience like no other – one whose impact can last a lifetime.
Saturday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center, Neglia Ballet Artists, along with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, sought to create more of those special Nutcracker memories with their fourth annual production.
The decidedly traditional production opened on a lavish Christmas Eve party hosted by the Stahlbaum family, where many of the production's 120 characters came to revel ?in the holiday spirit. Amid the opulent scenery by designers Lynne Koscielniak and Dyan Burlingame, the Stahlbaum family, led by Beth Elkins as the consummate socialite Frau Stahlbaum, and their guests engaged in infectious merriment peppered with good old-fashioned humor.
Choreographed by Neglia artistic director/principal dancer Sergio Neglia and executive director Heidi Halt, the scene made good use of the roomy stage at Shea's, weaving chains of dancers through well-crafted group dances and advancing the ballet's familiar story line in the process.
Things really took shape with the arrival of the eccentric but personable Herr Drosselmeyer, portrayed by Irish Classical Theatre's Vincent O'Neill, reprising the role he originated in the production. Drosselmeyer gave the Stahlbaum's daughter Marie, danced by Stephanie Waite, a wooden nutcracker she instantly cherished.
Waite was captivating as the young Marie. Her endearing smile, spunky stage presence and accomplished dancing skills lit up the stage.
Also of note in the scene was the performance of Ilya Burov as a soldier doll come to life. Burov's powerful dancing, filled with athletic jumps and leaps, had children in the audience shifting to the edge of their seats to get a better view.
The party scene ended with Marie asleep on a couch, clutching her nutcracker, with Drosselmeyer casting a spell. She dreamed of being captured by a band of cartoonish rats and mice, and of her nutcracker coming to life as a cavalier, leading an army of soldiers to her rescue.
After a fanciful battle scene ?filled with sword play, cannon fire and the transformation of Marie into an adult version of herself – danced by Silvina Vaccarelli, a principal dancer with Argentina's Teatro Colón ballet – the ballet's first act concluded with a frosty snow scene in which "Snow Flakes" danced and Vaccarelli and Neglia, as the nutcracker now sans his wooden exterior, executed the first of their shining pas de deux together.
The ballet's second act found the adult Marie and her cavalier in a land of sweets, where a plethora of emissaries from foreign lands came to dance for them.
Highlighting the sugary pink act were the lively performances of Jace Coronado and Marie Keil in "Spanish," an alluring and skilled Mary Beth Hansohn with partner Shane Ohmer in "Arabian," the high-flying Burov in the Russian "Trepak," and an exhilarating waltz of the "Flowers" dance led by lead flower Traci Finch.
The act climaxed with the grand pas de deux of Vaccarelli and Neglia. The two, whose refined dancing appeared to be second nature, were elegant and graceful. Vaccarelli mesmerized in her "sugar plum" solo variation.
In the end, Neglia's inspired production of the classic along with the BPO's stirring performance of Tchaikovsky's brilliant score succeeded in inspiring even more magical "Nutcracker" memories.
Presented by Neglia Ballet and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. Saturday night and 2 p.m. today in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
Tickets are $32-$72. Call 847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org.