ALBANY — The Russians are known for their ballet, so expectations always run high when the Moscow Ballet makes its annual visit to the Palace Theatre for “The Nutcracker.” The holiday classic, however, was not in its peak form Thursday.
Certainly, the costumes and sets stood out for their elegance and beauty. (The Russians always go to glittering extremes on production values.) But the dancing, surprisingly, was uneven. At times, it was tired (the party scene was deadly tepid) and others times, fantastic (the Arabian divertissement was the most daring ever seen).
Part of the problem is Moscow Ballet is not a top-tier ensemble. It’s a motley gathering of artists whose talents range from mediocre to marvelous. But dressed in sparkling costumes, including the crispiest tutus to be seen, and placed in front of some colorful and well appointed backdrops, the Muscovites pulled it off.
Of course, adding 67 area children from Premier Dance Performing Arts Center and Orlando School of Dance to the production helped tremendously. They served to both pad the slim crowd and add a cute factor. There were so many, there were moments when the production looked like a student recital.
Company member Ekaterina Bortiakova as Masha (the Russian name for Clara) carried the night. Quick and lively, she blended girlish wonder for the holiday festivities with a spark for romance and adventure. She fell instantly in love with her Nutcracker, given to her by her Uncle Drosselmeyer (Sergey Dotsenko) and was visibly bereft when her rambunctious brother Fritz (Viacheslav Katvanov) stabbed it with his sword.
Unfortunately, her Nutcracker Prince, danced by Denis Danilin, could not match her magical lightness. In solos, he could turn, but not as rapidly as she. He looked klutzy in his assemblé jumps as he could barely launch himself off the ground.
As a partner, he fared better. Standing behind Bortiakova, he escorted her with dignity, holding her hand as she flicked a leg skyward again and again.
The best part of the evening came when Elena Petrichenko and Sergey Chumakov took the stage. While fine dancers, they were even stronger acrobats. They opened the second act as two doves with wings intertwined. Perched on his shoulder, she melted so completely with him they looked as one.
The dancers were keenly attuned to each other. That was clear in their steamy and mind-bending Arabian pas de deux. He lifted her and she balanced on top of his head on one knee. Then she dropped, twisting her body around his — between his arms, down his torso and through his legs — as she melted to the floor.
Then he flung her up and over him again in a sweeping arc that had audiences gasping. In between contortions, they embraced and kissed. The tone was thoroughly exotic.
More skillful dancing was delivered by Inna Melnik and Anatolii Bakhmat in the Spanish divertissement and Anastasia Haietska and Serhii Klymenko in the Chinese.
It was disappointing that the Russians brought no Mother Ginger, always a highlight, of the second act because it generates some hearty laughs. But “Nutcracker” fans were happy with the bevy of adorable young dancers and an Arabian duet that astonished at every turn.