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In Jose Mateo's ‘The Nutcracker,’ Diversity Stands Out

(Karen Wong)

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It’s a smaller stage than you might be accustomed to for a show like this, but the setting is uniquely Cantabrigian: a church-turned-recital-hall, where a few nights a week ballerinas fill the stage. The seats are stadium-style, allowing the audience to watch the choreography from above the heads of the dancers — we can trace their geometric configurations and even follow the footsteps of freshly powdered toe shoes across the black stage.

For a more intimate and sweet production of “The Nutcracker,” look no further than The Sanctuary Theatre at the Old Cambridge Baptist Church — the winter home of the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre. The atmosphere is similar to the Boston Ballet’s home turf at the Opera House — friends and families bring bouquets of flowers for the young dancers. Refreshments and souvenirs are sold as you walk up the stairs to your seat. And throughout the performance, a cautious hush holds over the adults and the quietest toddlers I’ve ever shared an auditorium with.

But the similarities stop there.

(Karen Wong)

(Karen Wong)

What makes this iteration of the ballet unique is that many of the supporting corps and this evening’s leading lady, Leila Dixon as Clara, are very young. While this Clara is closer to an age where make believe and playing with dolls is plausible, she seemed new to her pointe shoes. Still, that never outshines her bright smile and graceful arm work; she’s a performer at heart and showed no hesitation in making contact with her audience. The entire troupe seemed much younger than their Theatre District counterparts, which is something to consider when we take for granted how difficult controlled ballet technique can be for young dancers.

It appears the entire Jose Mateo school is involved in this holiday production — advanced students double as Clara’s parents and soloists, younger teens fill up the remaining pas de duex and the rest play soldiers, mice and Mother Ginger’s polichinelles.

The company also features many more boys and men than your average studio recital. And, in a modern twist, during the Snow Queen’s debut a corps of all-male dancers support soloist Elisabeth Scherer instead of the usual cavalcade of ballerinas. I can also say for certain that Mateo’s “Nutcracker” has the most adorable mouse war in the Greater Boston area.

(Gary Sloan)

(Gary Sloan)

This production makes creative use of its cozy space. Background pieces slide in and out of place without disturbing the performance, and they use effects like fog and snow for that extra bit of showmanship. The costumes shift from whites and pastels to bright hues after intermission, enhancing the dream sequences of the second act. During the Waltz of the Flowers, dancers wore neon purple, yellow and pink with light green trimmings to match the soloist in the center. Clever work with traditional tutus and romantic tulle skirts added a splash of color, which appeared only when the dancers were in motion.

Perhaps most importantly, Mateo’s commitment to the company’s diversity is a real delight. Aspiring dancers can watch performers of all shapes, ages, genders, sizes and races dance in front of a large, receptive crowd. Not all dancers find that form of relatable affirmation in major productions, which makes the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” a true holiday treat.

Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Boston. You can usually find her outside any of the area’s movie theaters excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter @mcastimovies.