Lustig’s Nutcracker Interpretation Among the Finest

Lustig’s Nutcracker Interpretation Among the Finest


Everyone loves a good Nutcracker, and Graham Lustig’s delivers with his version with the Oakland Ballet.

The Oakland Symphony accompanies the Oakland Ballet dancing the holiday classic.

It comes back every year, without fail. The Nutcracker, that is. The question is, why?

The most popular classical ballet in the world is Swan Lake. George Balanchine, the great choreographer who cut his teeth on Swan Lake as a little boy in Russia, said something along the lines of “call anything Swan Lake and people will come.” As far as Northern American audiences are concerned, Balanchine was wrong. Nutcracker outperforms any other ballet in this country.

The reasons are many. Some believe that it’s nostalgia for a time when families were intact and all children well-behaved. The ballet also celebrates “the ballet family” by showcasing tiny tots and the older character dancers on the same stage as truly spectacular classical performers. The story’s flexibility allows many interpretations. In my first Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer descended from a spaceship. Besides the ballets, there are films, video games, at least one musical, cartoons, and anime. And there always is a brave little girl. Still Nutcracker’s major asset is the truly masterful Tchaikovsky score, full of exquisite melodies and extraordinary orchestrations.

Among the many Bay Area Nutcrackers, Graham Lustig’s is surely among the finest. He brought it with him as a gift when he stepped in as artistic director of the Oakland Ballet Company in 2010. Moving the first act into early modernism, he compensated for its secessionist simplicity with a second act’s mouth-watering Konfiturenburg.

The first thing we see is floor-to-ceiling windows looking on a snow-covered landscape with children playing outdoors. Much of the charm of Lustig’s Nutcracker is the presence of children—both from ballet schools and the community. They vibrantly fill the sometimes overly serious second act divertissements by supporting the professional performers. Dancing with snowflakes, for instance, are a dozen perfectly enchanting snowballs. And no sled and horses for Marie and the Prince—they take off in a hot air balloon.

Yet Nutcracker lives off its music. In another special treat, the Oakland Symphony under the baton of Michael Morgan will perform the Tchaikovsky score. And children are part of it. Listen to their voices. The passage is short, but their presence counts.

Oakland Ballet, The Nutcracker, Sat., Dec. 22, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., Sun., Dec. 23, 1 p.m., Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland, $24-$97, discounts for seniors and children,,, Paramount Box Office.

This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.