From the moment the curtain rises on Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre's "The Nutcracker," there's magic in the air. This 20th anniversary production highlights the best of Mateo's approach to the holiday classic as well as his approach to dance education. Every scene in this balanced production combines playfulness with precision. Every member of the ensemble, from the tiniest mouse to the gorgeous Snow Queen, dances with a sense of the joy and wonder that are essential elements of the story.
Mateo's decision to tour the production (which returned for a second year to the Spingold Theater at Brandeis University and is returning for the fourth year to the Duxbury Performing Arts Center next weekend) also seems to bring out the best. No longer cramped by the confines of the company's Sanctuary Theatre space, or overwhelmed by the size of the Cutler Majestic, "The Nutcracker," decorated with Roger LaVoie's gorgeous backdrops, felt both impressive and intimate in the mid-sized Spingold Theater.
As the story begins, Dream Fairies cast a spell with a maypole-like dance to introduce the magical gift that becomes the catalyst for the story. We then head to Dr. Drosselmeyer's workshop, in which the alchemist (an ageless Mateo) tries out his inventions: the wind-up dolls Columbine (Magdalena Gyftopoulos) and Harlequin (Noah Kopp). Gyftopoulos infuses her doll with an enormous amount of attitude, a wonderful touch for the mechanical toy, and a lovely suggestion of things to come.
Once we head into the Party scene, Mateo's real choreographic skill becomes apparent. Whether working with his own talented company dancers or the children in the party scene, the young mice, soldiers, cherubs, angels, and attendants, Mateo manages to integrate the professionals with his students in combinations that never look labored while creating graceful tableaux that keep the story moving. The difficulty of the dance steps always fit the ability of the dancers without feeling like any quality is compromised. But the students don't need fancy footwork to show off their skill because they carry themselves with such grace, and hold their arms with a lightness that makes them look as if they might be floating.
Young Gabrielle Ledoux, who played Clara at the performance I saw, was accomplished en pointe, performing pirouettes with ease. She is also an accomplished actress, adding subtle emotional touches to her elegant moves.
The battle between the Nutcracker Prince (Kehlet Schou) and the Rat King (Ronnie Terrell Thomas) is fierce and so realistic the young man behind me was concerned the wrong guy might prevail.
Among the second-act divertissements, the standouts include Charissa Leatherman and Thomas in a vivacious Chocolate, Desiree Reese and Sean Gunter in the seductive Coffee, and Jessica Kreyer and Kopp in Trepak, performing splits and spinning leaps with enormous energy. Ruth Bronwen as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Matt White as her Cavalier perform the grand pas de deux with an exquisite sense of timing, matching the music's majestic tempo with combinations that display Bronwen's perfect extension. The stately grace of the pas de deux contrasts with the intense energy of their solo turns, with White's impressive leaps and Bronwen's swiftly spinning pirouettes.
Mateo builds to a magnificent crescendo for the finale, but the brilliance of this production lies in its humor and heart, personified by the mischievous magic-maker, Mateo himself.