Watching "The Nutcracker" over the holidays feels like drinking hot chocolate on a cold day -- sweet, rich, familiar. It is a fairy tale once removed -- a Christmas-party fantasy ornamented by a child's ecstatic dreaming. The Richmond Ballet's opening party scene, with courtly gentlemen, adorable children, and graceful women in gowns revealing the chiseled marble of their shoulders, sets a standard for color, light, and texture that the ballet sustains through its end.
The Richmond Symphony, as always, delivers Tchaikovsky's music with practiced vivacity. Though we have heard it a million times before, the lush score performed live is a treat, unrolling in sparkling ribbons of sound, undistorted by shopping mall speakers. The choreography of the pas de deux by the Snow Queen and King (Lauren Fagone and Phillip Skaggs, in the cast I saw) and the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier (Valerie Tellmann and the accomplished Igor Antonov), while pretty, does not quite fulfill the music's generous, dramatic sweep.
Casting can make or break a production whose appeal rests to some extent on the tried and true -- on consistent delivery of well-loved scenes. RB made solid decisions in casting; for example, Angela Hutto and Shira Lanyi as the Spanish dancers -- both gorgeous, combining technical facility with relaxed naturalism. Maggie Small as the snake, partnered with Kirk Henning in the ever-popular Arabian Dance, danced with perfect ease and luscious assurance. And all my critical faculties deserted me when Cecile Tuzzi came out as the Shepherdess with her tiny lambs.
RB's current Nutcracker -- now five years old -- shines brightest in its well-rehearsed ensemble work. The toys come to life and fight the mice; snowflakes whirl in the wind; flowers nod and dance around a butterfly. The ballet rests on the willing backs of children -- the very young ones who play themselves at a party, or costumed as lambs, angels, rabbits; and particularly the teenaged soldiers, snowflakes, and flowers, who dance their hearts out and cover more ground than the rest of the cast combined.
Richmond Ballet's "The Nutcracker" continues through Dec. 23 at the Landmark Theater. Tickets are $18-$100. Call 344-0906 or visit www.richmondballet.com.