PBT's savory team spices 'Nutcracker'

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By this time, there are few surprises to be witnessed after 12 seasons of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's historically rich production of "The Nutcracker."

It might turn out to be different this year, though. The company is coming off stellar performances of the Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs" and "In the Upper Room" in October.

Could they continue on in the same vein, bold and adventurous, and, at the same time, make the jump back into the balletic mold? PBT is a savory blend of veteran dancers who bring a much-needed perspective and strong young talent, who provide an injection of youthful physicality.

Spurred on by an enthusiastic audience, the opening night cast took chances with Mr. Orr's by now familiar choreography, elevating it to a new level. Christine Schwaner (Marie), so wide-eyed and fresh, and Alexandre Silva (Nephew/Nutcracker), looking trimmer, something that brought a lightness and spring to his jumps, capitalized on their success in "Giselle" last year.

The husband-and-wife team have an undeniable chemistry that made the burgeoning love between the two characters real.

While the second act has the more spectacular array of dances in its amusement park setting, the Stahlbaum house had its own brand of homestyle entertainment at the start, led by the suave Nurlan Abougaliev (Drosselmeyer) and including Danielle Downey's Columbina, Nicholas Coppula's confident Pirate and a scene-stealing Fritz, Hanna Chen.

Longtime company members Eva Trapp (Sugarplum Fairy) and Robert Moore (Cavalier), both soloists, were a surprise selection for opening night. Despite having to fight through her final menage of turns, Ms. Trapp impressed as a glamorous Sugarplum, particularly in her original shape to the phrases, melting with such beauty. Mr. Moore, a true leading man, had a commanding look to the jumps in his solo variations.

Julia Erickson and Mr. Silva took their places at the Saturday matinee. After a crystalline Mirliton on Friday, Ms. Erickson channeled her star quality for the more demanding Sugarplum. It was danced in a truly sophisticated Balanchine style. Mr. Silva was, yes, "cavalier," so good, but sometimes diffuse in his focus.

A dancer who has been rather measured and over-rehearsed lately, Alexandra Kochis became a courageous and spirited Marie, capable of the grand adventure ahead of her. She was paired with PBT's rising star, newly appointed soloist Yoshiaki Nakano.

Mr. Nakano had unfolded a noble approach to Mr. McTavish with split leaps and breathtaking multiple pirouettes on Friday, but the Nephew/Nutcracker role was his first major part. Although he still needs to develop his dramatic side, this dancer has always connected with audiences. He has become decidedly more polished since his win at the Beijing International Ballet Competition last summer and his best moments here came in the mime sequence describing his victory over the mice, transformed into a virtuoso solo.

Presiding over it all was Stephen Hadala (Drosselmeyer), the longest-running corps member, now so authoritative and best symbolized by a magical swirl of his cape to punctuate the ending.

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1@comcast.net. She also blogs on www.pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.

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