The Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium came alive in Edmonton on December 22 & 23 with magical performances of Shumka’s Nutcracker. Designed to become an annual tradition, Clara’s Dream has come true as the audience flocked to see this distinctive take on the Nutcracker story through dance.
It all takes place on a magical Christmas Eve set in the 1800s, with the Stahlbaum family’s annual gathering. Townspeople come to the grand home where daughter Clara is gifted a nutcracker doll from her mysterious godfather Dr. Drosselmeir. After the guests leave, at the enchanted stroke of midnight Clara checks her gift under the now-growing Christmas tree. She is soon surrounded by menacing mice in battle with her nutcracker soldier. She comes to his rescue, defeating the Mouse King. The nutcracker transforms to a handsome prince and he whisks Clara away to his fantastical fairytale kingdom.
In this charmed spot, dancers from faraway lands entertain them before the couple themselves do a touching pas de deux. The celebration ends with Clara finding herself back in her own home, wondering if her journey and budding romance with her prince were only a dream. One is left to ponder this as her godfather’s nephew arrives. After all, the nephew was the one who crafted the nutcracker doll in the first place, and he bears a striking resemblance to the handsome prince!
The costumes were phenomenal and plentiful. There were adults in elegant shimmering attire at the party in the parlour. Later, Clara’s nightgown had a wonderful flow to it. The crowned and sparkling ladies in white and light blue evoked feelings of snow-maidens. The ensemble set with diagonal skirt draping was a nice change and the ribbon length was extravagant, falling almost to the knees. The men in the gold medallion sharavary were nice, however that same gold shirt colour and stage lighting missed the mark when at first glance it could make the men look like they were bare-chested (with the dark embroidery coming across like hair on their chests!). Costuming was exceptional in the finale Hopak where the men’s beautifully-cut burgundy coats made the dance moves even more dramatic and impressive.
The scenery and props were elaborate and lavish with admirable use of the entire stage. There was a great set change from the outdoor village square to the grandeur of the parlour. And there was so much to see at the party inside! When the Christmas tree grew (or the characters shrank to the size of mice) it was a flawless change. Drapery flowed down effortlessly, the prince’s sleigh glided across the stage with just the right amount of fog. Perhaps the light bars and speakers were not well enough hidden at the far sides of the front of the stage, but that is what may need to happen when every inch of space is used, including the proscenium.
The marriage of the music to the choreography was epic. So many nuances were captured with steps ideally suited to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and to the added and re-arranged segments including Yuri Shevchenko’s symphonic version of Shchedryk or Carol of the Bells. The music was well performed and so integral, providing seamless transitions. It was the music that provided such an emotional build-up to the nutcracker magic spell. Carolers were incorporated live with a number of appearances throughout the show. The technical aspect of the speakers and microphones, though, were not 100% effective in this venue, with the orchestral recordings sometimes a little loud and occasionally a bit crackly or hissy. The singers were perhaps over-amplified which did not highlight their true and best voices or blend. The Irish dancers were completely precise with their music – chords, percussion, tempo changes – all remarkable. For the entire concert, from harp to strings to bells to full orchestra, the music moved us from moment to moment and kept us spellbound in the story at all times.
Community connections and collaborations by Shumka were numerous with this production. There was a cast of almost 100. Clara (Tetyana Lozova) and her Prince (Yaroslav Tkachuk) were Artists of Kyiv Ballet – National Opera of Ukraine. Other guest artists included Kylee Hart from Ballet Edmonton and past Shumka dancers James Eeles and Jeffrey Mortensen. Performing as mice and village children, there were delightful dancers from the Shumka School of Dance. The Ukrainian choral community was well represented with about a dozen singers forming the carol group. Surprisingly, it was the duo of Londyn & Olivia Nachtigal from the Edmonton-based Mattierin Irish dancers who had the audience clapping along, and whooping and hollering with great gusto at end of Irish dancing.
And indeed, it was dance that the audience came to see. The Ukrainian Shumka Dancers were magnificent. They emulated skating and frolicking in the snow, there was such charm and individuality entwined in the characters large and small. We knew Clara’s brother was quite a petulant boy. The dancers embraced a playful and relaxed feel, with a rather modern and up-to-date attitude and amazing accuracy and artistry. The quartet spacing was off a bit by the men at an early scene in the party, but there was such precision in so many places as the production continued. The doll and marionette dances were delightful and captivating. Then there were such balletic moves we almost wanted pointe-work to happen already! There was interesting choreography at the parlour party scene with juxtaposition of serious to silly in both the mood and the music. Jeffrey Mortensen’s gymnastic run in the Chinese dance was appreciated by an enthusiastic audience. Annikka Dobkos’ Arabian segment was mesmerizing. When the stage was finally filled by red-adorned Cossacks and maidens, performing solo after solo with marvelous athletic tricks and speed, new heights were reached. The ensemble work was lovely and the duets, and trios were all in sync. There was no need to stop to milk applause from the audience, as everyone was right into it. That’s what we came to see!
After so many impressive solos, Clara and her prince performed a romantic duet, with loving couples from the chorus framing them, echoing and strengthening the tender moments, and painting a memorable picture.
Shumka’s reputation for creativity, innovation and professionalism in its pursuit of artistic, evolving Ukrainian stage dance is well-served with this production. Their extensive team is deep with talent and dedication and should be commended many times over. Canada’s Ukrainian Shumka Dancers is a flagship organization that many groups admire. It is only because Shumka sets the bar so high for themselves that anything other than praise was mentioned in this review.
The encore-like bows brought all the parties back to the stage for the briefest of moments capturing the highlights of each segment: Spanish, Doll dances, Chinese, Irish, Arabian, Ukrainian, children, carolers, and the ballet. The standing ovation was instantaneous at the end of the show, leaving the crowd breathless and gratified. Bravo!