DAVENPORT -- "The Nutcracker" ballet is magical on so many levels.
The mesmerizing, sumptuous 1893 score by the romantic Russian Peter Tchaikovsky. The merry Christmas Eve setting, with a mysterious toymaker, presents, and life-size dolls. An enchanted dream as a nutcracker and rat king do battle, and the old nutcracker is transformed into a dashing young prince. The wondrous sights of dancers cavorting beneath falling snow. And the exoticism of a "Land of Sweets" and its parade of varying cultures and choreographic treats.
The magic, particularly in the expert company of Ballet Quad Cities, is in the exquisite visual feast of bringing this beloved holiday tale to life. Friday morning, a rapt Adler Theatre audience of more than 1,000 area schoolchildren was wowed even before the action began. Several students audibly gasped with glee at the unveiling of the opening set -- the Stahlbaum family home at the time of the family's annual holiday party.
That's the magic of theater: This was probably the first ballet most of these kids have ever seen, and being transported to such a place of dreams and wonder -- where anything is possible -- is the greatest gift you can give a child. Not such a bad one for adults, either. We all long for an escape, to find that carefree state of bliss. And that's what "The Nutcracker" provides for nearly two hours.
Ballet Quad Cities'13 highly trained, adult professional dancers have come here from across the United States, and we're lucky to have them. (This is the only professional ballet company in western Illinois and all of Iowa.) "The Nutcracker" reunites its magnetic, charismatic leading couple from last year -- Emily Kate Long, 23, as Clara, and Jacob Lyon, 34, as the Nutcracker and handsome Prince.
They live out a dream, and they dance like a dream. They seem to glide effortlessly as one, with an unerring sense of timing and poise. My favorite scene in the ballet, "The Land of Snow," includes Mr. Lyon and Ms. Long dancing alone with pure, clean, fluid, sweeping moves. That's the essence of beautiful, simple ballet -- and with artistic director Courtney Lyon's dazzling choreography, the dancers astoundingly make such precise athleticism seem easy.
The "snowflake" dancers in this scene truly embody the feathery light, fluttering movements of wintry flakes. They float and flit with heavenly grace.
Earlier in the first act are much more earthbound pursuits, such as the frenetic battle between soldiers and mice, and the playful party atmosphere that precedes it. A highlight again is Kelsee Green as the ramrod-straight Fairy Doll, a kind of wind-up ballerina who is very stiff and exacting. Walker Martin is equally disciplined as the Soldier Doll. It's a nice visual touch when the clock strikes midnight and the face glows with each chime.
The familiar second act seems nothing but highlights, as we're treated to Ms. Green and Mr. Martin returning with colorful passion, style and flair in the Spanish Dance; an extraordinarily nimble, limber Margaret Huling with Jackson Warring in the slow, sensual acrobatics of the Arabian Dance; and Calvin Rowe leading flowing ribbons and twirling umbrellas in the brief Chinese Dance.
Three perfect ballerinas execute the delightful, delicate Mirlitons Dance, and the Russian Dance is fast and exhilarating. Ten dancers do the lovely, elegant "Waltz of the Flowers" -- gorgeous to look at and listen to, as we're again transported back to a more refined and genteel place.
But the stars clearly are Mr. Lyon and Ms. Long, who are riveting in their pas de deux dances at the top and close of the second act. Despite the familiarity of the music, the pull and drama and romance of the wordless work never cease to draw me in. That's magic.
Unfortunately, the only drawback Friday was that we didn't get to hear the live orchestra that will be partnering with the ballet for this weekend's productions; instead, this school matinee was performed to a recording. Ballet Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids-based Orchestra Iowa are collaborating on three projects during their 2012-2013 seasons.
The first took place on Sept. 9 in Cedar Rapids, where the ballet troupe danced to George Gershwin's "An American in Paris"and Aaron Copland's "The Promise of Living," also choreographed by Courtney Lyon. Last weekend, there were three performances of "The Nutcracker" at the newly restored Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids.
Ballet Quad Cities and Orchestra Iowa will perform the Tchaikovsky classic together at the Adler, 136 E. 3rd St., Davenport, at 1 and 7 p.m. today and 1 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $12, $17, $27, or $35. They're available at the Adler box office, (800) 745-3000, or ticketmaster.com.