Two splendid local ballets offer an energizing lift to the mercantile madness and shrill sentimentality that characterizes a postindustrial Yule season. Ballet Midwest and Mid America Dance Company are making a happy habit of staging signature holiday pieces, and The Nutcracker and Cinderella: The Untold Story are both feasts for the eyes.
A leading dance academy, Ballet Midwest's dancers include tots, teens, 'tweens and the occasional grownup. Judging from the cohesion of the corps and the precision of positions, quality of instruction is high indeed. This Nutcracker (accompanied by the Tchaikovsky score, alas uncredited) has all the details: a magical growing Christmas tree, a full-skirted Mother Ginger and professional Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier (the glittering and powerful Sylvia and Maxim Tchernychev, brought in for the show). More important, there's enthusiasm and skill from all performers, so this Nutcracker crackles.
Veronica Burke (alternating with Meagan Estep) is an elegantly lithe Clara who takes great care with her extensions. Her younger brother, Fritz, is played by Gene Neyman, who understands that sibling dynamic -- his moments were a bright spot during the somewhat draggy opening scene at the Stahlbaum house. Perhaps the dancers were still getting used to having everyone, plus guest adults, onstage. But when the lights went down and the battle between the Nutcracker (Christopher Frost, alternating with Clayton Cunningham) and the Mouse King (Adam Kahn) began, it was clear that these young dancers believed in their parts, down to the last scurrying mouselet. Seeing young dancers discover the joys of performing a classic piece to great music is a real privilege.
I hope some of the dancers at Ballet Midwest got to see Madco's hilarious and affecting Cinderella: The Untold Story. This spoof suggests that the two stepsisters were actually the goodies and that the Prince fell for them. Only the machinations of the Stepmother and a scheming Cinderella prevent true love from triumphing.
Last year's performance was a stitch-and-a-half, and this year's was even more delicious. Choreographer Todd Weeks and Gavin Michael Sisson brilliantly reprised their roles as galumphing glamour gals Pruenella and Esmerelda. Summer Beasley was a worthy successor to original Cinderella Stacy West (who's expecting a baby) and actually made her tantrums deepen in complexity as the show progressed. The rest of the company had polish and pizzazz, especially in a dance-studio scene. The solemnity of barre exercises has never been mocked so affectionately, and the slapstick is Chaplinesque. Forget sleight of hand -- Weeks can write sleight of body, and Madco pulls it off.
Weeks and Sisson are barely offstage. They use everything -- wrestling moves, acrobatic stunts and conventional ballet steps. Weeks is a master of exasperation and delight, whereas Sisson's facial expressions concentrate on a wistful yearning that's truly heartbreaking. When they lay eyes on the Prince, it's clear that eyes won't be enough. Brandon Douglas Porter, as the Prince, is reminiscent of a ruggedly compact young Michael York. Though his leaps aren't as confident as those of the rest of the corps, his acting is up to the task.
As tradition goes, let's hope that Cinderella becomes as necessary to holiday celebration as sledding on Art Hill.