These days, a single "Nutcracker" usually does the trick for me, after 30 years and multiple productions of the E.T.A. Hoffmann classic. But this is a banner year for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, sporting 11 new dancers sprinkled amid no less than nine casts.
Certainly, it's a great way to evaluate new dancers, test the mettle of young corps members and keep an eye out for the continued progression of the veterans, something that artistic director Terrence Orr is able to do by attending every one of the 25 holiday performances currently being offered.
With new dance prospects knocking on his door and videotapes collecting in his office, Orr gets a real sense of the current company during the extensive "Nutcracker" run and a solid idea of how to tweak it. For the only true test of an artist is on the stage.
For that reason, I chose a student matinee, chock-full of debuts, and an evening performance that featured young talents Megan Trambley, Alan Obuzor and Christopher Bandy.
Not that tried-and-true dancers weren't involved, and they popped up all over the "Nutcracker" landscape. Jiabin Pan swashbuckled his way through a daredevil Pirate variation, showing how Orr's choreography should be done, although he later suffered from lackluster leaps in the Russian trio.
On the other hand, Daisuke Takeuchi's Russian dance brought roars from a student audience as he carried a couple of apprentices, Gabriel Smith and Graham Pontarolo, along in his high-flying interpretation.
Christopher Rendell-Jackson tossed wife Kaori Ogasawara in breath-taking bravura lifts that dotted the Snow and Arabian numbers. And newly appointed soloist Kwang-suk Choi was a noble Cavalier to Maribel Modrono's vivacious Sugarplum Fairy. Choi, again giving a carefully delineated performance as the nephew, was joined by the new husband-and-wife team, Sayaka Tai and Ivan Bielik, for the matinee.
Tai may have the most spectacular technique of the women, although Orr may want her to shape the part of Marie in a more delicate fashion. But, armed with a sweeping arabesque, a secure confidence and an expressive face, she seemed to be a strong addition to the PBT roster.
Bielik brought his Russian-style dramatic training to the part of Drosselmeyer, sharply accentuating the magic tricks with large, expressive hands. But the legs should have it, and he still seems to be feeling his way through powerhouse parts like the Pirate and Russian.
The younger Trambley made a lovely Marie, more like a winsome porcelain doll, although she tended to lose focus as the ballet progressed. Bandy, not necessarily the image of the classical ballet dancer, was nonetheless secure and comforting in his duets with her, and he is a dancer who appears to have uncommon intelligence. The pair appeared to be more comfortable whirling through the Snow scene at another performance.
Obuzor, who has struggled with injuries, was a smooth and debonair Drosselmeyer, whetting the appetite for more.
A confident Kumiko Tsuji turned the Spanish variation into a prime exhibit of this flamboyant style, a la "Don Quixote," a piece that she is preparing for an international ballet competition in Nagasaki, Japan, with Takeuchi.
Meanwhile, Kalle Paavola continued to impress, strongly partnered by Rendell-Jackson in the Arabian and using her long lines to good advantage as a Shepherdess.
So, at any given performance, PBT will be offering an ever-changing assortment of bonbons for the astute audience member. The last performance on Dec. 28, one of the most promising to come, will have Erin Halloran, Stephen Hadala and Rendell-Jackson in the top leads. Obuzor will partner Julia Erickson in the Snow pas de deux and Trambley in the Arabian dance, and Tsuji and Takeuchi will finally make their debut this season as the Sugarplum and her Cavalier.
It should all make for a sweet ballet treat that provides the impetus for the company's upcoming New Year.