Whether it's your first or 51st time seeing the Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, there's still magic in the air.
The company opened the Nutcracker season Friday night at the Academy of Music, as delightful as ever. It's a ballet with less serious dancing than most, but the acting and the children more than make up for it.
Ava DiEmedio, playing a personable Marie, got the acting down pat, able to portray both her eagerness to include her little brother in the excitement of the family Christmas party, and her desire to to throttle him. Rowan Duffy was spot-on as the bratty little brother, his antics and tantrums honed over four years in the role. (His brother Aidan, this year a mouse, also spent years as Fritz and the Prince.)
Graham Wissinger had the double role of Drosselmeier's nephew and the Nutcracker Prince, battling the mice and sweeping Marie off her feet. His pantomime to the Sugar Plum Fairy was a clear and amusing rewind on the battle.
In the adult roles, Alexandra Hughes started the party off right as Marie's mom, Frau Stahlbaum, in her sparkling red dress and with an equally sparkling personality. She seemed stiffer in the second act, though, when she returned as the lead Marzipan Shepherdess.
Oksana Maslova was a sultry Coffee, showing off her extreme flexibility. Mayara Pineiro was a buoyant Dew Drop, dancing through the blossoming corps of flowers.
Lillian DiPiazza was a gorgeous Sugar Plum, her dark hair and delicate footwork projecting into the audience. Ian Hussey as her cavalier was dashing, his soloing and partnering both solid.
There are so many magical moments in this Nutcracker: the ice-blue snowflakes dancing against a landscape that scenic designer Peter Horne in 2007 modeled after the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia. The red-coated Philadelphia boys choir singing along to the storm.
The quick change from Nutcracker to Prince, the angels that seem to float across the stage (although I wish their dresses were an inch or two longer to hide their steps), Sugar Plum's glide on arabesque, and many other low-tech bits of magic add to the fantasy.
There were a few mistakes — "wine," really a red cloth, falling out of a glass; Candy Canes crashing into each other on entry; sections of lights on the Christmas tree refusing to glow as the tree was growing. (The tree is generally looking tired, like artificial turf against a scene of velvet and sparkles.)
There were also details I hadn't remembered from previous Nutcrackers: Drosselmeier recovering the handkerchief he had used to patch the wooden Nutcracker and immediately sneezing into it. Also, DiPiazza and Hussey danced slightly different steps in the part of the Sugar Plum pas de deux (Balanchine encouraged changes that worked for each dancer).
But small differences, or even errors, only add to the beauty of The Nutcracker, which skirts the line between magic and reality and doesn't lose its gleam, however many times you see it.
If you go
George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
Through 31, Academy of Music. 215-893-1999. paballet.org