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A sparkling gift from Rochester artists


Snow was gathering outside Eastman Theatre and onstage as the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and Rochester City Ballet gave us an early Christmas gift last weekend. Saturday night, I saw another extraordinary performance of the Nutcracker ballet. It was rewarding to a degree far beyond any appreciation born of boosterism or local pride. I've said that any major ballet company would be happy to have such young talent emerge as RCB artistic director Timothy Draper trains and regularly turns out. In fact, our nation's top companies have already hired a number of RCB alumni and lined up several current dancers for the future.

            Guest artists this year included Company alumni Kristi Boone (now with American Ballet Theatre), Sarah Lane (of American Ballet Theatre's Studio Company), and Meredith Seeley (formerly of the St. Louis Ballet, recently moved to Chicago). I missed Boone and her partner, Isaac Stappas (also of ABT), but saw Lane partnered with ABT dancer Jared Matthews.

            I can't overestimate the contribution of local guest artists The Bach Children's Chorus, whose singing punctuated the Snow Scene's Act I finale with a lovely counterpoint. Their director, Karla Krogstad, demonstrates sensitive rapport with the music and the balletic moment.

            Unfortunately, gifted young conductor Michael Butterman wasn't given enough rehearsal time with the principal dancers, and evidently doesn't have much experience accompanying dancers. Butterman made Tschaikovsky's beautiful score swell thrillingly in the magical transformation scene, and brilliantly flit in and out of the sparkling Snowflake scene. But his tempi were out of synch with the rhythms and pace of several solo dancers, and erratic enough to cause them some trouble. It's a tough assignment, of course, to do justice to the music and also make it fit the complex stage action, which includes not only dancing, but pieces of scenery moving in and out and a Christmas "Spirit" who literally flies all over the stage.

            Company principal Jessica Tretter danced (and flew) that role with appropriate magic. Other principal dancers included Timothy Lawler, who showed great stretch as the handsome male doll; Adam Kittleberger as both the Mouse King and danseur in the Italian Ice trio; and Derek Stratton as the virile, muscular partner of rubber-limbed principal Erin Bellis in the Arabian Dance. Alexandra Johnson, once RCB's pretty, young Clara, now studies and dances in SUNY-Purchase's professional dance program, and led the Spanish Dance with glamorous authority. Jimmy Rodriguez-Jimenez returned to bring the house down with his flashy Russian Trepak. Elegant Hayley Meier was assured beyond her years in the English Toffee solo. Ditto Katie Lally's Harlequin dance; with precocious physical strength, she is clearly a young dancer to watch.

            So is Saturday night's charming little Clara, Brittany Shinay. Jonathan Davidsson was her adorable Nutcracker Prince. The Snow Queen and King --- Meredith Seeley and her strong, attentive partner, Jason Kittleberger --- performed their Act I pas de deux with polished zest.

            Amazingly, leading the dancers who are beyond "up and coming," little 13-year-old Jim Nowakowski continues to astound me with his beautiful feet and legs and refined technique. This year, he also astounded an international audience that included some leading dancers from the great companies of France, Russia, and Germany when he was invited to an Eastern European gala performance. Tara Lally, reported to be headed to the touring Cirque du Soleil, took bravura charge of the Dew Drop role. Ballet dancers notoriously look younger than they really are; but in Draper's company, they're all so well trained and gracious in manner that you won't believe how young they are.

            Except for some problems with accompaniment (perhaps leading to their awkward exit from the Grand Pas de Deux), Sarah Lane and Jared Matthews capped the evening dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. I don't know where their exotic costumes came from (not from this ballet!), but they looked attractive. In the few months since she graduated from high school and the Draper Center for Dance Education here, won the Youth America Grand Prix and the silver medal at the USA International Ballet Competition, and joined ABT's Studio Company, Ms. Lane has gained grandeur in her line and deportment and dances almost flawlessly. Matthews has a big jump and very fast, pretty pirouettes, and partners solicitously. Onstage in classical ballets, ballerinas and danseurs ideally should look more perfectly beautiful in movement than normal human beings can hope to be. Except for their obvious youth, these two are well on the way.