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Classical moves create a magical 'Nutcracker'

The Boston Ballet's "Nutcracker," in its second year at the Opera House, shatters an age-old stereotype about the venerable holiday classic. "The Nutcracker" isn't about dancing, the cliche goes. It's all about pageantry and mime. The adults in the audience yawn their way through the first act, and the children conk out for the second.

That couldn't have been less true last night, from either side of the generational divide.

Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen has choregraphed a version of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story, to the full Tchaikovsky score, that both springs from the music and revels in the theatrical legerdemain that feeds kids' souls. There's the giant ascending Christmas tree, of course, and the hot-air balloon that whisks young Clara and the magical Drosselmeier to the Palace of Sweets. There are prancing white reindeer and a Mouse King who does a double-take before expiring. And this year, for the first time, there are also "real" magic tricks (oxymoronic as that sounds), that have been taught to Drosselmeier by Cesareo Pelaez, who performs as Marco the Magi, creator of an acclaimed stage magic show.

But there's also dancing, dancing, and more dancing. There's clarity of line and kaleidoscopic shiftings, geometric patterning and carefully balanced proportion in the choreography Nissinen has crafted for his dancers. This "Nutcracker" is born of classicism and punctuated, not driven, by glitz. Even Clara and Drosselmeier join in with sophisticated phrases when Mother Ginger lifts her giant skirts to release the minuscule Polichinelles. (Though the tiny fuzzy white sheep herded by two grown-up Bo Peeps in the Pastorale section goes a little too far in the adorable category.)

Misa Kuranaga as Clara is at once elegant and sprightly. Details as small as the arch in her pointed foot cause a catch in your throat. Kathleen Breen Combes as Columbine manages to be both mechanical and lush as she clicks through her steps. And Nelson Madrigal as the Nutcracker/Cavalier exhibits a quiet yet resilient strength as he blasts through turns and then, graciously, showcases his partner, the Sugar Plum Fairy (Larissa Ponomarenko).

Ponomarenko, for her part has enriched her portrayal of the sweet lady in pink since last year, executing hummingbird beats and languid arabesques, though her arms still don't emanate organically from her core. Melanie Atkins in the Spanish dance exudes a gutsy languor, and Melissa Hough and Raul Salamanca in the Chinese dance startle with their alternately flashing arms.

Snow Queen Karine Seneca's tremulous thighs recall the chill of a winter's day, but much of her partnering with Pavel Gurevich is uninspired. The 10 Snowflakes, however, with their circling reaches, crossover leaps, and domino-like flutterings, highlight Nissinen's formalist roots.

Joel Prouty in the Russian dance bounds off the floor like a gymnast off a trampoline. Not just the heights he reaches but his stamina are remarkable. Tai Jimenez and Sabi Varga in the Arabian dance are limpid and well-matched, though the point where Jimenez pulls her leg to her ear still smacks of a stunt.

The Waltz of the Flowers fairly sings. Lia Cirio as Dew Drop is simultaneously a powerhouse and a delicate, well, flower, leaping smack down center stage and suspending in arabesque for what seems like forever. She anticipates the beats in the music rather than reacting to them, adding a further dimension to the score.

Bottom line: The magic in this "Nutcracker" comes not from the Pelaez's sleights of hand but from Nissinen's imagination, and the dancers' utterly classical feet.

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