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DANCE REVIEW

Mateo’s ‘Nutcracker’ has holiday spirit

The Snow Queen (Elisabeth Scherer) soars among the Snowflakes in José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker’’ at the Spingold Theatre in Waltham. The Snow Queen (Elisabeth Scherer) soars among the Snowflakes in José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker’’ at the Spingold Theatre in Waltham. (Karen Wong)
By Karen Campbell
Globe Correspondent / December 13, 2010

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WALTHAM — Since 1987, José Mateo Ballet Theatre has carved a niche in area holiday offerings with an accessible and affordable professional production of “The Nutcracker,’’ which opened at Brandeis University’s Spingold Theatre Friday night. Relatively modest in scale compared with Boston Ballet’s opulent production, it trades grandeur for intimacy and charm. And the limited forces actually make the storytelling more convincing and immediate. Young Clara’s story and Mateo’s considerable choreography for her don’t get lost amid the scenery and shenanigans.

Mateo takes some liberties with the traditional narrative. After an overture with the curtain closed (the music is taped), the ballet opens on a nighttime scene of “Dream Fairies’’ dancing with long, white banners that coalesce to suggest a snow-covered Christmas tree. It’s a little confusing, but soon enough, we’re invited into Dr. Drosselmeyer’s workshop and more familiar territory.

Mateo himself plays the magician with singular warmth and geniality. With a flourish of his cape and a grin to the audience, he sets two mischievous mechanical dolls in motion. Jenna-Marie Nagel is a coquettish Columbine, flirting with Jacob Hoover’s Harlequin, who sails through buoyant jumps and well-oiled spins. Nagel unleashes a series of impressive fouettés before threatening to dance out the door.

The cozy party scene at Clara’s house lets us catch some of the delightful theatrical nuances, from vivid facial expressions to subtle gestures. We see the children interact with one another. Clara is beautifully danced on pointe by Sophia Arnall, 15, who is technically accomplished and dramatically convincing. She cradles her precious Nutcracker, fending off the boys with little frappé-like kicks. One rambunctious child is carried off squirming, his face in silent protest. And after his magic show, poor Drosselmeyer keeps getting dragged off to socialize with the adults, when it’s clear he wants to stay with the children.

The party children handled Mateo’s substantive choreography with poise. The post-party fight between the Mice and the Soldiers was less convincing, though the Mice were appropriately adorable and the Soldiers danced with authority. Kehlet Schou was a noble Nutcracker Prince, a commanding presence with lofty grand jetés and sharp footwork.

Mateo uses four Snow Princes to partner the Snow Queen (ably danced by Elisabeth Scherer) and Snowflakes. While their lifts take the Snowflakes airborne, the men aren’t nearly as strong or cohesive as the women, whom Mateo spirals into striking patterns, gauzy skirts fluttering with each turn. The act’s ending tableau is wonderful, arms open wide, faces turned up to the sky, reveling in fake snow wafting from the rafters.

Act 2 looks a little tired, lacking distinctive style and marred by moments that don’t flow organically. It needs more movement that truly springs from the rhythmic energy of Tchaikovsky’s glorious score. But there were some standout performances. Madeleine Bonn was an exceptionally regal Sugar Plum Fairy, from gracious port de bras to delicate piqués and crisp pirouettes. With exquisite timing, she completely filled out the music with curving arms, voluptuous extensions, and deep arches in her partnered lifts with the attentive Hoover, whose soaring leaps and midair spins imbued the Cavalier with polish and flair.

Mateo’s older students excelled as Angels, ringed by a bevy of tiny cherubs. Gloria Benedikt and August Lincoln Pozgay danced “Arabian’’ with luxurious flexibility. As the Dew Drop Fairy, Sybil Geddes led a lyrical Waltz of the Flowers, as the capable corps surged on and offstage, finally blossoming into a colorful ending array.

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.

JOSÉ MATEO BALLET THEATRE Performing “The Nutcracker’’

At: Brandeis University’s Spingold Theatre, through Dec. 19