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Larger venue gives Mateo's 'Nutcracker' room to grow

Even though the number of dancers in Jose Mateo's "Nutcracker" has stayed the same, the production looks fuller in bigger venues, as if the company is performing more expansively. (jim scherer)

WALTHAM -- Jose Mateo's Ballet Theatre is taking it on the road. The company has always prided itself on the intimacy of its sturdy, choreographically lively version of "The Nutcracker." But over the past few years, the company's Sanctuary Theatre home base in Cambridge has felt a little constrained for Mateo's full artistic vision. This season, the choreographer and his troupe are skipping the Cambridge performances in favor of spreading the wealth to three other communities with more spacious venues -- Waltham, Andover, and Duxbury (next weekend). And as Friday night's performance at Brandeis University's Spingold Theater attests, the move gives the production room to not only breathe, but flourish.

Even though the number of dancers has stayed the same, the production looks fuller in the new space, as if the company is performing more expansively.

Mateo also resurrected Roger LaVoie's painted backdrops and scrims, so the new production looks warmer, more polished. What it lacks in theatrical magic (Mateo has never tried to go head to head with Boston Ballet's extravagant version) it makes up for in heart. And thankfully, the production is still intimate enough that the audience can hear the snap of the Nutcracker's jaws.

For a second - tier company, Mateo's production is impressively sound, skillfully choreographed, and well-paced. There are few missteps choreographically or conceptually, though the opening prologue played to a closed curtain only calls attention to the lack of live music.

Once the show gets underway, however, it breezes right along. The opening dream sequence features fairies creating a maypole-style tree for Clara out of swaths of billowing cloth gleaming against a backdrop of twinkling stars. Mateo gives Clara substantial choreography on pointe, and 16-year-old Hannah Simmons delivers. The Mateo-trained Needham student dances with admirable poise and elegance complemented by expressive hands and face. Mateo plays Dr. Drosselmeyer with charismatic charm and flourish, accompanying each magic trick with a big smile and, a little disappointingly, nary a trace of mystery.

Jessica Kreyer and Noah Kopp are technically assured and delightfully comic as Drosselmeyer's two mechanical dolls, Columbine and Harlequin. Both have a crisp, robotic edge through difficult turns. Meg Flaherty Griffith is a regal Snow Queen, though her sagging extensions bring down the gracious carriage of her upper body. Her arrival with four Snow Princes is one of Mateo's most inventive tweaks. Though their choreography never matches the majesty of Tchaikovsky's rousing score, their presence when the Snowflakes arrive allows for partnered lifts that add richness to Mateo's arresting ensemble patterns. Predictably, the children are adorable, from the party kids to the baby mice, with their flat-footed skitters and sagging bellies.

Surprisingly, it was in the second act variations that Mateo's "Nutcracker" seemed a little off the mark on Friday night. While the character dances offer performers a chance to showcase their flashiest stuff, Mateo's challenging choreography not only highlights strengths, but weaknesses -- some mushy articulation, jumps that seem labored, timing not quite up to par. Maybe chalk it up to the rigors of touring, but some of the solos looked tired. Most impressive was Madeleine Bonn as the Sugar Plum Fairy , who was visibly nervous, but articulate and committed. Mateo's most brilliant choreography (and overall the best dancing) came in the exciting finale for the bows -- nothing like saving the best for last.

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