Who makes the magic?: Newport Contemporary Ballet’s 22nd annual ‘A Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff’

Newport Contemporary Ballet's 'A Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff'. Photo by Alan Hubbard.
Newport Contemporary Ballet's 'A Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff'. Photo by Alan Hubbard.

Rosecliff Mansion, Newport, RI.
November 22, 2023.

“Magic”. Maybe we think of fairies, elves, Santa Claus and any other number of mythical beings. Yet, if we believe that magic is all around us, all the time, can we also believe that we are capable of making magic? Newport Contemporary Ballet (NCB)’s A Newport Nutcracker at Rosecliff is always constructed in a way that has me wondering who catalyzes the magic at hand: the Winter Fairy, Drosselmeyer, the Sugarplum Fairy, or all of them in turn? 

After a pre-show note from Artistic Director Danielle Genest, I saw that question a little differently this year. She noted how the massive undertaking of the production is possible only because of the work of dancers, volunteers and the larger community that supports the company. We make the Nutcracker magic – all of us, together

In the wholesome, Victorian-era world of the production, however, the Winter Fairy (Margot Aknin) seemed to kick off the story’s otherworldly happenings. Aknin danced with the ethereal effervescence of the spritely being that she embodied. I felt something transcendent as Tchaikovsky’s score came up, as well – as I always do, no matter how many times I’ve heard it. There’s no magic quite like Nutcracker magic. 

The characters led us into their holiday party, complete with gifts and a brightly-lit tree. The attendants danced with effortless grace, so very accustomed to hosting and attending such opulent gatherings. Only Drosselmeyer (Gregory Tyndall) was something one might not expect – and all the more entertaining for it. Soon we met the delightfully sweet Ballerina Doll (Jenna Torgeson) and the stoically powerful Soldier Doll (Benjamin Rabe). 

The Winter Fairy returned to sprinkle her magic here – and children at the party saw her. The line between reality and her magical world was blurring. She seemed to blur the lines further with the incoming rats and their Rat Queen (Deanna Gerde); were all events here, even those that seemed scary, part of her grand plan? 

In any case, through it all, Kathleen Medeiros danced Tess with both refined grace and impressive understatement. She forced not a thing. Tess Oelrichs, a girl who once lived at Rosecliff, is NCB’s version of Clara. The Battle Scene brought the organized chaos of true battle, and the Waltz of the Snowflakes the natural beauty of snow softly coming down. 

NCB’s version of that waltz had just two dancers to start, and then more joined – reflective of how snow sometimes builds from just a few flurries to full sheets coming down. The intricacy and multiplicity characteristic of this variation was very much on hand. The ballroom glistened through it all, with several snowy trees and a wintery glow in lighting (by Stephen Petrilli, with production and stage management by Vivian K. Humphrey). Tess was fully in the magic, and we were right there with her. 

A shout out to Kelly Moeller Rabe and her trusty partner Raum Aron Gens-Ostrowski, who executed a memorable Snow Pas de Deux. Moeller Rabe’s artistry demonstrated that rather than an aesthetic issue, a tall woman dancing en pointe can bring captivating power and grace.

It seems as if the Sugarplum Fairy took the reins of running the magic for the second act. Brooke DiFrancesco danced the role with her signature ease, yet also rock-solid technical command. She lets the movement resonate through her, like a rung bell, and it seems as natural as breathing. 

Aknin and Carson Ford danced Chocolate with as much elan as one could hope for. The vocabulary had a satisfying foundation of balletic shapes with infusions of Spanish flair. In Coffee, Lauren Difede and Isabelle Ramage created compelling mystery with watercolor scarves (costume design by Eileen Stoops) and curvilinear movement. Oranges and reds filled the ballroom’s white walls. With such design complements, each variation became its own enchanting little world. 

Tea, with Jenna Torgeson and a corps of youth cast dancers, offered a zippy treat of intricate footwork and gracefully arching shapes. The Candy Canes were as elegant and stately as Moeller Rabe’s and Emily Baker’s white gloves (also with Gregory Tyndall, to dance as a trio). 

Benjamin Rabe brought jaw-dropping athleticism in Trepak, with an accompanying corps for this variation as well. It was another speedy treat of pure, pulsing energy. Mother Ginger (Martha Parker) and her Polichinelles (two groups of young dancers at separate ages), with Tess also joining in, created quite the party – where everyone was invited. The audience, clapping along, wasn’t about to be left out of the fun! 

Four flowers and the Dewdrop Fairy (Deanna Gerde) then graced the stage for the Waltz of the Flowers. They offered shapes and formations just as gently and gracefully shapely as rose petals. Gerde, for her part, radiated vitality – just like a flower in full bloom. 

The Coda, with Timur Kan bringing his usual combination of sensitive artistry and raw power, was as captivating as ever. Then came the finale, in which it is a delight to have the whole stage space bursting with all of these characters of sweetness and magic.

A fun thing with seeing separate Nutcrackers is how many have slightly different endings. NCB’s had the Sugarplum Fairy placing the Nutcracker Doll in Tess’s arms as she slept. The Sugarplum Fairy then exited. Tess awoke. She looked at her doll, as happy as could be, and joyfully ran off with it. “Real” or not, what had happened was a delight – and that seemed to be enough for her. 

When we all work together to bring magic to the stage – performers, designers, administrators, volunteers, patrons, community members – it can be enough. In fact, it’s typically just that: utter magic. We don’t need fairies or dolls that come to life to experience it. The holiday season, with its unique mixture of organized chaos and bright cheer, can remind us of that truth. Thank you as always, Newport Contemporary Ballet, for helping to bring us that magic! 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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