A distinct bonhomie permeated the annual production of “The Nutcracker,” that Little Rock holiday staple for Ballet Arkansas, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and parents hoping to expose their kids to culture that Disney doesn't control. In part it's because it is, in every sense, a family-friendly event: The production itself is overrun with children of a spectrum of ages, so the audience is chockablock with parents, grandparents, older siblings, friends. It's also heavy on the merchandise, with nutcrackers and “Nutcracker”-themed ornaments selling with such haste you'd swear they'd been deep-fried. Children fill the audience, talking and chortling, dressed for Sunday school.
For a couple of days in December, with a professional ballet company performing and a professional symphony rocking the house, the venerable Robinson Auditorium will host the emotional equivalent of the school play, in a good way, for it's the right attitude to bring. This is Arkansas, after all, not Boston or Moscow or London, and the money simply ain't there for it to be compared against the grandest productions of the old Tchaikovsky standard. Better to celebrate the chutzpah in the attempt, if not the bursts of brilliance that talent always seems to offer when it's forced to do more with less.
The story, if you're unfamiliar, is essentially a drawing-room period piece preceding an act and a half of hallucination on the part of a little girl named Clara (Lauren McCarty, who impressed one longtime “Nutcracker” fan as the strongest dancer in the production), who dreams that her nutcracker comes to life and defends her against an army of dastardly mice (played here, adorably, by a parade of children swaddled in grey cloth suits). Act II is an extended fever dream of dances from many lands; the highlights here were Jonathan Bostick and Allison Stodola's sensual, athletic turn in the Arabian dance and Bostick, Case Dillard and Paul Tillman playing the Russian Trepak to the hilt. By the end of the Grand Pas de Deux, Tillman and Grace Tilley shrank the sprawling production to a two-person spectacle. The six professionals in the Arkansas Ballet company (Kelsee Green among them) led the 100-some dancers, but it was reassuring to see two of the junior company youngsters — Jake Catlett, as the valiant nutcracker, and Mallory Ketch, as the eminently foldable ballerina doll — show such promise. The kids, as they say, are all right.