Ballet for the holidays

Junior Katie Patikowski rehearses for her performance alongside professionals in The Nutcracker at McCarter Theatre.By Katelyn Friel

The young and the young at heart filled the ruby-velvet seats of Princeton’s McCarter Theatre as junior dance major Katie Patikowski helped bring to life the American Repertory Ballet’s (ARB) production of The Nutcracker in her first performance Saturday, Nov. 30.

ARB artistic director Graham Lustig’s vibrant version of the holiday classic was set to the original Tchaikovsky score, but was surprisingly refreshing with its innovative choreography. The youthful spirit of this 100-year-old tradition was captured through the costumes and sets, by Zack Brown, which were reminiscent of the sugary, light confections that fill candy store shelves during the holidays.

Seen during the opening of the second act, Patikowski auditioned for the professional company, whose dance school is associated with Rider’s dance program, and was cast as one of the dancing Bonbons in the fantasy-filled Confiturembourg.

“I auditioned in September,” Patikowski said. “When I went there, I didn’t know many people so it was sort of intimidating. The girls in the dance with me already knew each other before, so coming into this I was the new girl, but they were very welcoming to me and made me feel comfortable.”

It was a dream world, from the icy, blue lighting that gave the dancers in their glittery-chiffon shifts an ethereal glow to the snowy, white confectionary background, with pine trees and snow drifts, down to the eerily realistic snowfall. All of these elements combined gave an air of magical, unmitigated perfection.

Taking part in rehearsals and ARB’s company classes, Patikowski was able to learn first-hand the demands that a professional dance career entails.

“Rehearsal wasn’t time-consuming, but once it gets close to the show it starts getting more hectic with spacing and tech rehearsals,” Patikowski said. “My first performance at McCarter Theatre, I was there from 10 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. because we had to do company class, then a spacing rehearsal, then a dress rehearsal and then the actual performance.”

All of the hard work and time that cast and crew members put into the production paid off, and were reflected by the murmurs of the crowd that filtered through the rows of the theater when the curtains unveiled the impressive winter wonderland scene.

“I have never done a show with a professional company before,” Patikowski said. “It’s different from what I’ve done before because there are so many people involved with this, on stage and backstage.”

ARB’s new sets alone are instant seat fillers. A delightful blend of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and the Candyland castle, complete with a shimmering pink and gold bejeweled hot air balloon carrying Marie and her Nutcracker between the worlds of reality and childhood dreams, the costumes and dancing were not overlooked when creating the radiance that the ballet emanated.

“The costumes were amazing,” said Erin Ludwig, a senior theater arts and journalism major. “They looked expensive with all the detail, like the crystals, beading, and embroidery. I was also impressed by the fact that the professionals were dancing with the children that they taught.”

Carrying The Nutcracker from start to finish, the Sugar Plum Fairy, played by Kristin Scott, who is involved in and inspired Rider’s Dances for Africa series, looked like freshly fallen snow. Dressed in pure white, her costume was embellished with dazzling crystal beadwork; topped with a diamond tiara on her halo of blonde hair. She and her Cavalier, played by Andrew Notarile, gave a magnificent performance during their grand pas-de-deux at the end of the ballet.

It was Michelle Severini’s standout performance as the Arabian dancer that was the undeniable scene stealer.

Cloaked in gold, teal, and coral silk, her fiery passion made the sensuous, sultry choreography sing. Severini made her long arabesques and rubber band-esque extensions seem effortless when pushing the limits and boundaries of physical exertion, all ending in thunderous applause.

“Working in a show with the company was very inspiring,” Patikowski said. “They are all such strong, amazing dancers; every time I watch them I think to myself, ‘I wish I could dance like that.’”

American Repertory Ballet performs The Nutcracker through Dec. 23 at various New Jersey theaters; 609-921-7758 or www.arballet.org.

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