Sublime new ‘Nutcracker’ nails Vero verisimilitude

Ballet Vero Beach’s all-new “Nutcracker on the Indian River” is a big-league production full of small-town charm – Vero’s charm. This may not be the first themed Nutcracker to recast the famous story ballet’s plot for its hometown audience, but the idea that struck artistic director Adam Schnell – to have the creatures of Vero’s shoreline fill little Marie’s dream world – was a brilliant one.

Even more brilliant was having costume designer Travis Halsey – Schnell’s old friend – design the costumes. Halsey himself has joined the ballet big leagues, designing for Miami City Ballet and New York City Ballet, among many others. I couldn’t help but feel the cast was inspired just filling Halsey’s gorgeous designs.

It probably didn’t hurt that the 23 professional dancers, which Ballet Vero Beach shares with Omaha-based Ballet Nebraska, was missing out on sub-zero temperatures during Nutcracker’s two-day run in Florida. But in the five years of performances here, I have never seen more joy emanate from the dancers. In that time, the company has also grown noticeably more polished. If Schnell saw that coming, joining forces with what was then his brand-new ballet company and Nebraska’s nearly new one, then he was right to wait until now to give Vero this major production.

Schnell sets his ballet in New York, a century ago. The opening drop resembles a vintage postcard, with a locomotive roaring past an oval cutout of the lagoon framed by mangroves. That drop and others were created by Holly Porch, familiar to the Vero theater scene as a graphic artist at Riverside Theatre. Porch was contracted by Bungalow Scenic Studios, an Orlando firm that created the sets.

The drop rises on a parlor on Christmas Eve 1919, with a family about to be invited on a train ride to Florida. It was around that time that Vero was first being visited by sun-seeking northerners descending on Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, the Brightline of its time. (Vero’s little train station, still standing on downtown’s 14th Avenue, was built by Flagler in 1903. It’s worth a visit, maybe in tandem with next year’s Nutcracker.)

The family’s ritual is interrupted by news that the eccentric Uncle Drosselmeyer is on his way to escort them to Vero Beach. Played by Matthew Carter, ballet master of Ballet Nebraska and a longtime friend of Schell’s, the mischievous, kid-loving Drosselmeyer brings instant magic to the family. He hustles them off to Grand Central Station, where we are treated to a trio of spiffy lady porters, and the mashup of travelers.

Then, as in all Nutcrackers, Marie finally dozes with her Nutcracker, bandaged after breaking on a walnut. The toy transforms to the living breathing Nutcracker, the tall and boyish Anders Southerland. Nightmares of sword fights with nasty mice ensue (Ryan Christopher does a mean Mouse King, and a frisky bobcat, in the second act). Then the victorious Nutcracker escorts Marie through more pleasant dreams of snowy forests, a Sugar Plum Fairy, a growing Christmas tree and finally the shores of the mangrove-laden lagoon with dancing dolphins, otters, manatees and bobcats. Not to mention Carter’s marvelous Mother Mangrove, who appears to have taken Flagler’s train to the end of the line – Key West. Before we know it, Marie is awake, and heading for the real-life beach she saw in her dream.

It’s a moment where I found myself reflecting – exactly as Schell and his key collaborator, the Indian River Land Trust, hoped – on just how much affection I feel for Vero’s natural realm.

Schnell wrote in his program that though he sometimes feels at odds with the world around him, the moments of what he called “unabashed beauty” tend to occur in darkened theaters and in nature. With this program, he hopes to merge the two “magical realms.”

He did exactly that.

I found one of the most magical characters near the beginning: ballerina Bret Samson’s gleaming (slimy?) alligator, transformed by Halsey’s head-to-toe unitard printed in scaly hide, her long machete of a tail swishing behind her. Dancing with reptilian menace, Samson’s gator was aloof and elegant, reigning with impunity over the lagoon’s lesser critters.

Halsey also masterfully delivered two gopher tortoises in jersey-skirted, amber-hued outfits, their almond-eyed heads worn on the dancers’ heads like fascinators at a royal wedding.

If lumbering is even possible en pointe, Schnell wrought it out of dancers Erika Overturff, Ballet Nebraska’s founder, and Kelsey Schwenker, in the witty pas-de-deux with a twinge of hip-hop about the hands. I loved it.

In contrast, the elegant Sandhill Cranes, danced by Katie van der Mars and Sasha York sporting jaunty red caps like the real birds, seemed barely tethered to the stage as they moved as if on stilts. They bobbed and jumped as the real storks do studding the county’s pasturelands. Again, Halsey’s costumes were breathtaking allusions to reality, sheathing the dancers in shimmering taupe with plumes of chiffon at the hips.

If the creature characters were delightful, the classical ballerinas were spectacular in Halsey’s lavish, bejeweled and beflowered tutus. Schnell nearly broke the bank on this permanent collection of costumes, and when Tchaikovsky’s unforgettable score led Nutcracker veterans in the audience to envision the traditional choreography, Schnell served up scene after gasp-worthy scene.

Snowflakes swirled down over a dazzling 12-member corps de ballet for the King and Queen of the Snow’s pas de deux (another lovely Mars-York pairing). And around Claire Goodwillie’s Dew Drop hovered a dozen Flowers, their tutus adorned with lily pads. By the way, for the first time, a Vero native was in that corps de ballet: Katerina Schwietzer has just joined Ballet Nebraska as a trainee.

By retaining much of the original Petipas choreography (Schnell also credits the choreography of his former mentor at Walnut Hill School of the Arts, the late Samuel Kurkjian), “Nutcracker on the Indian River” localizes a classic with wit and originality while tapping the nostalgia that makes this ballet such a tradition.

Sadly, I had to miss seeing the children in this production. All 50 – yes, 50 – got the night off at the dress rehearsal I saw (holiday Vero Beach 32963 deadlines precluded reviewing the opening night performance). I can only imagine how moving it would be to see them, knowing the excitement they each would experience. That is the dual function of Nutcrackers everywhere – to entertain audiences in preparation for a lifetime of theatrical experiences, and to spawn a new generation of future ballet dancers. Few professionals will not have a Nutcracker role at the bottom of their resume. Maybe that’s the joy we saw on the dancers’ faces as they recollected the moment they were little mice and soldiers.

And while you enter next year’s Nutcracker on your Google calendar, consider tagging this Jan. 19-20 for another Ballet Vero Beach first, an entire program featuring company ballet master Camilo Rodriguez, including his now legendary tongue-in-beak version of “The Swan.”

Photos by: Denise Ritchie
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