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Talented dancers make ‘The Nutcracker’ soar

There are few things better to supercharge your holiday spirit than watching dozens of children onstage performing a timeless Christmas classic. Such was the case on Saturday as the American Academy of Ballet took to the stage at the UB Center for the Arts to deliver the first of three shows celebrating its 20th anniversary performance of “The Nutcracker.”

Where to begin when trying to take you inside the magical world this team of incredibly talented dancers conjures up onstage? What makes this production so rich is the diverse group of talent that comes together. With Misa Kuranaga and Daniel Ulbricht returning (Daniel from the New York City Ballet and Misa from the Boston Ballet) to reprise their roles as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Mouse King, respectively, the stage was set for a magical afternoon of dance. From there, mix in a troupe of 200 including students from the American Academy of Ballet and nearly a dozen local studios and you’ve got the makings of an unforgettable stage experience.

If you’re old enough to read this review, you know the wondrous tale of young Clara (Emma Robinson) and her Christmas Eve dream in which she travels the world with a young prince on a romantic adventure.

The pageantry of “The Nutcracker” is steeped in the costumes and set, and under the direction of Maris Battaglia, both are breathtaking as the audience is transported back to 1910 and all of its grand splendor.

What is so fabulous about a production like this is the chance to see the fresh-faced young dancers perform, and imagining who among them will one day command leading roles. Robinson has that sparkle and brought a wonderful energy to the role of young Clara.

Likewise Emily Fretz, who joined UB student Evan Matthew Stewart for the iconic scene where the ballerina doll and toy soldier come to life. Both delivered wonderful performances that were the highlights of Act I.

No production is complete without the iconic Mouse King scene, and this performance doesn’t disappoint. Kudos to the ensemble that delivered a high-energy horse and soldier dance. I marvel at how a director can put that many bodies on stage together for a pivotally important scene, and make it look so effortless, but Battaglia does it and does it well.

“The Nutcracker” truly shines in Act II when Clara slips into dreamland and emerges (played by Emily Wozer) accompanied by her handsome prince (Tyler Malone) to travel the world in style.

Both display a youthful enthusiasm and, aside from a brief tumble by Wozer, from which she quickly and effortlessly recovered, their dancing is impeccable.

From the Arabian dancers, to the Chinese dragon, across Spain and over to Holland, the dancers tell rich tales without uttering a single word, instead gliding, floating and twirling across the stage leaving the audience clamoring for more.

The highlight of an incredible production comes when Clara and her prince visit the North Pole. Accompanied by up-tempo music, wonderfully acrobatic elves, and Santa and Mrs. Claus, the scene steals the show and in a few brief moments, captures everything that makes Christmas such a wonderful time of year. While it appears even Santa isn’t immune to public opinion, as he rides his sleigh offstage bellowing “Happy Holidays” in place of his normal, “Merry Christmas,” that departure from tradition isn’t enough to derail a breathtaking performance by all.

And, as they did last year, Kuranaga and Ulbricht return to the empty stage and end the production with pure ballet. No dancing lobsters or tap-dancing turtles (both of which were outstanding in the visit under the sea) needed. These two uber-talented dancers command the stage with grace, power, and elegance leaving no doubt why they are principals in two premiere dance companies.

With brilliant (and ever-changing) sets, dazzling costumes and 200 gifted dancers, “The Nutcracker” will leave you with a warm heart and a smile on your face.