A well-known show like The Nutcracker brings in audiences looking for two things: a familiar, nostalgic experience, with a hint of something new.  Ballet BC’s presentation of Alberta Ballet’s The Nutcracker delivers.

The story begins at a Christmas Eve party with the well-to-do Stahlbaum family, including young Clara.  Children play, grown ups dance, and the family’s quirky godfather Drosselmeyer attends with toys and a magic show, bestowing Clara with a nutcracker that she instantly falls in love with.  That night, once the guests have left and the family is in bed, Clara sneaks back down for her nutcracker.  Suddenly surrounded by a flock of rats, the great hall transforms and she finds herself in the middle of the magical Land of Sweets where (now much larger) rats, lead by their Tsar, battle gingerbread soldiers, lead by the Nutcracker himself.  When it appears that the Rat Tsar will beat the Nutcracker, Clara swoops in, hitting him with her shoe, and distracting him so that the Nutcracker can defeat him.

What follows is essentially a parade through the Land of Sweets where Clara and the Nutcracker watch performances from the locals, including the famous Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.

The Alberta Ballet’s take on the classic is, above all, fast-paced and playful.  Purists may be turned off by the fact that there are alterations – in fact entire numbers such as the Mother Ginger dance where children swirl in and out of her giant skirt are cut – but it really felt like a trimming of the fat.  As beautiful as it is, a ballet like The Nutcracker, with little story to hold it together, can drag on, after all.

Other small changes made the familiar piece feel new again. Drosselmeyer’s magic show at the party is a brand new experience, featuring hypnosis of the children and adults, as is his presence throughout the ballet.  The story was also brought back to its original Russian setting, using a bit of the old to breathe new life into this tale, with the rats dressed in traditional Russian garb and the palaces having a distinctly Slavic feel.

The choreography and dancers feel light and playful throughout – like they are genuinely having fun with the material.  During the series of performances for Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, the characters seem to be joyously displaying their skills for these visitors, so much so that it felt somewhat surprising when they would bow to the audience following their pieces instead of Clara.

While the entire company was strong, and will rotate through the coming performances, special mention must go to the Sugarplum Fairy (Luna Sasaki) and her Cavalier (Garrett Groat).  Sasaki moved like a breath, with such easy precision her moves were captivating.  In contrast, Groat was strong and impressive in his execution of the leaps and turns from the Cavalier’s solo.

The Nutcracker is always a hit this time of year, and this production is likely one of my favourite Nutcrackers to date.  The perfect way to wind down a busy holiday season.

The Ballet BC presentation of Alberta Ballet’s The Nutcracker continues at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre until December 31. Visit http://balletbc.com for tickets and information.