The last two weeks of NYCB's The Nutcracker can be unusually exciting because Peter Martins often casts several deserving corps dancers in meaty principal roles. These opportunities are meaningful beyond words for the dancers -- many of whom incorrectly assume that no one ever notices them on stage except for Mom and Dad, as a dancer's parent once mentioned to Haglund.
At the Saturday matinee performance of The Nutcracker, eight members of the NYCB corps de ballet debuted in prominent roles. All succeeded in varying degrees and a couple even soared. But it was not an afternoon for weak hearts. And on such important days when seemingly – but not really – careers hang in the balance, everyone – dancers and audience alike – should stick to decaf, and that includes Haglund.
The highlight of Act I was Taylor Stanley's debut as the Soldier. There are few roles in ballet where "wooden" is appreciated, and this is one of them. When Taylor as the toy soldier emerged from the huge gift box, it was apparent that he was going to take this to a high level. He moved from rigid toy position to rigid toy position with such speed that one really only saw the ending positions and not how he arrived at them. There were reverberations in his body just like one would expect to see from a wooden soldier. Even his stage exit back into the gift box was 100% in character with the soldier bent over while looking left and right, almost as if he wasn't ready to be shoved back in the box quite yet.
In Act II, Justin Peck debuted in Hot Chocolate opposite Megan LeCrone who was announced at curtain as the substitute for Georgina Pazcoguin. An early slip to the floor by Megan brought an over-reaction from the audience, but she and Justin completed their dance as smoothly as the espresso hot chocolate at The City Bakery on 18th Street in Chelsea.
Ashley Laracey debuted as Coffee and managed to jingle all those bells affixed to her body with sensuality. Ashley is fast becoming another favorite ballerina when cast in roles requiring a legato quality.
Spartak Hoxha debuted as Tea supported by Lauren Lovette and Claire Von Enck. Okay, Haglund will admit that this was the first time he has noticed Spartak on stage, but heck, the guy was just upgraded to the corps last August. A very spirited, quick and light jumper, he made some effortless and beautiful shapes in the air.
Devin Alberda came out and worked the hoop in his debut as Candy Cane with a seasoned mastery. Another light and quick jumper who makes it all look easy, he also has a fabulous rapport with the audience.
Kristen Segin managed a wonderful debut as the head shepherdess in the Marzipan section with her articulate feet, lovely smile, and absence of affectations.
Our newest Dew Drop, Mary Elizabeth Sell, found herself on stage in the biggest role of her life yesterday. Excited, confident, raring to show that she was up to the task – which she certainly was – there was no question that she could accomplish the job. So now it's time to calm down and think about musicality. There's a difference between holding an arabesque balance to imbue it with musicality and holding an arabesque balance for as long as possible just to show that you can do it. Mary Elizabeth should pull out the Tiler Peck/Ashley Bouder videos for a bit of study, and if they still have them, Kyra Nichols as well.
One of Haglund's favorite ballerinas, Lauren King, debuted as the Sugar Plum Fairy with Robert Fairchild as her Cavalier. A few excited nerves were in play but the debut as a whole was terrific. Her initial solos in the peach costume were perfectly placed and musical but at times the footwork was on the small side. More shape and articulation in the feet are needed. Her rapport with the children on stage seemed to send a few of them into overdrive. When Little Prince Maximillian Brooking Landegger realized that this particular Sugar Plum Fairy was actually listening to and communicating with him, his mime solo held new drama.
The Pas de Deux with Robert Fairchild had some exceptional moments, such as the SPF's jumps to the cavalier's shoulder and the dramatic ending poses to phrases. The dark haired cavalier and the vivacious strawberry blonde made a handsome pair, and their overall musicality around the stage was a good match.
There was an issue with the ever-risky step-over turn that opens to arabesque and evolves into a penche. For some reason, the cavalier decided to retreat upstage toward the wing almost out to 9th & 62nd Street while the newbie SPF prepared to execute this very difficult maneuver. Sure, he had his arms wide open to second position like he was there for her benefit, but he wasn't really. The SPF must have been scared out of her mind at the thought of having to do the step without a partner, but she cautiously stepped into it and the cavalier rushed in and just barely got there in the nick of time to avoid disaster. Did he then adjust his stage position for her second try? No.
Haglund can't remember seeing a cavalier move so far away from the SPF during this phase of the PdD, and he doesn't want to see it again, especially when it needlessly pushes one of his favorite ballerinas so close to disaster – during her debut. Their variations during the PdD were executed well and Lauren's feet and legs looked more alive and articulate under the mint-colored tutu than when she danced in the peach costume. She was radiant.
It was a fairly exciting afternoon, and Haglund has decided to insert into his Christmas stocking another ticket to see this same cast at next Wednesday's matinee.
The Pump Bump Award, one that will surely enhance a few Christmas spirits, is bestowed upon Lauren King, Taylor Stanley, and Devin Alberda for their impressive debuts on Saturday afternoon.