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Neglia Ballet, Philharmonic give new life to ‘Nutcracker’

San Francisco Ballet founder and artistic director Willam Christensen, credited with the first complete performance of “The Nutcracker” ballet in the United States on Christmas Eve 1944, couldn’t have foreseen the love affair American audiences would have with the ballet in the decades since – making it one of this country’s most cherished holiday traditions.

Now a Buffalo holiday tradition, the seventh annual presentation of Neglia Ballet Artists’ “The Nutcracker” ballet Saturday night in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, in collaboration with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Shea’s, once again reinforced that love affair with a magical production that excited the senses and warmed the hearts of audience members of all ages.

Based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s well-known 1816 story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the mostly traditional production was conceived, choreographed and produced by Neglia Ballet Artists’ artistic director/principal dancer Sergio Neglia and executive director Heidi Halt.

Set to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score for the ballet, performed live by the BPO under the baton of associate conductor Stefan Sanders, the production in two acts – featuring a cast of some 120 characters – opened on the Christmas Eve party at the home of the affluent Stahlbaum family.

The lively party atmosphere introduced the audience to young Marie Stahlbaum, the ballet’s protagonist, danced by Yuha Tomita and her mischievous brother Fritz (Adrien Malof) as well as their mysterious uncle Drosselmeyer, portrayed once again by Irish Classical Theatre artistic director Vincent O’Neill. During the scene, the fresh-faced Tomita was full of life as young Marie. A fine actress and dancer, Tomita was a delight, as was the sister-torturing antics of Malof as Fritz. In giving Marie a Nutcracker doll during the party, Drosselmeyer set into motion a magical journey Marie would embark on during the rest of the ballet, beginning with a nightmarish battle of mice and men.

Wonderfully lit by lighting designer Dyan Burlingame and costumed by Donna Massimo, the surreal “Battle” scene saw Marie’s Nutcracker doll come to life as the life-size leader of an army of toy soldiers who battled an army of pirate-outfitted rats.

The frenetic scene kicked the ballet into high gear with cheese-firing artillery and cavalry helping the Nutcracker (Sergio Neglia) defeat the Rat King (Brian Pagkos) and his cohorts and save Marie. At scene’s end, the Nutcracker was again transformed by Drosselmeyer, this time into a handsome Cavalier, danced by American Ballet Theatre corps dancer Jose Sebastian, and young Marie into an adult, danced by fellow ABT dancer, soloist Luciana Paris. The pair embodied a sense of youthful wonderment as they entered a land of snow, surrounded by dancing snowflakes to end the ballet’s first act. One of the ballet’s best group dances, the “Snow” scene, choreographed by Halt, evoked images of a swirling, snow-filled wonderland.

Act Two saw adult Marie and her Cavalier arrive at the “Land of Sweets,” where confectionary-themed dances were performed for them by dancers from foreign lands. Highlighting those dances were: a sensual and sleek Mary Beth Hansohln and her steady partner James Graber reprising their roles in “Arabian,” Walter Garcia in the explosive “Trepak,” in which he barreled through a series of high-flying leaps and rapid-fire turns, and “Flowers,” another well-crafted group dance by Halt.

This year marked the first year Neglia did not dance the role of the Cavalier. His emotional and power-packed stage presence was missed but the handing over of the torch to Sebastian proved the right move.

Neglia Ballet Artists’ “The Nutcracker” continues at 2 p.m. Sunday in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

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