People often roll their eyes at the “Nutcracker”—so conventional! So twee!—but I am amazed each year by the emotional fullness of this ballet. It must be hell to dance day in and day out for an entire month, as the New York City Ballet does each year, from the day after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Eve. We have heard tales of slippery artificial snow in the Waltz of the Snowflakes, and, thanks to Sophie Flack’s new semi-autobiographical novel “Bunheads” (a fun read) we now know that the snow-flakes have a bitter taste when they inevitably flutter into the dancers’ mouths. I’m sure it’s a bore to feign delight, or to have Tchaikovsky’s melodies playing in a continuous loop in one’s brain. I feel for the dancers, really, I do, but even so, every year I am struck by how stirring and satisfying “The Nutcracker” can be, in the right hands.
We are lucky to have two very satisfying major productions here in New York, in addition to myriad smaller ones, each with its own virtues (mainly, the often impressive dancing of children from ballet schools all over town, who prepare for months for this moment). The creator of the “Yorkville Nutcracker,” Francis Patrelle (a much-loved teacher) had the clever idea of setting his version in late nineteenth-century New York, complete with references to Gracie Mansion and the Conservatory at the Bronx Botanical Gardens. “Nutcracker in the Lower,” set in a Lower East Side tenement, has flamenco and hip-hop. The New York Theatre Ballet’s one-hour version, newly re-choreographed by Keith Michael, is remarkable for the integrity of its hard-working dancers and its economy of means, as well as its marvelous costumes, designed by Sylvia Taalsohn Nolan (whose day job is designing costumes for the Metropolitan Opera).
But all of these smaller productions lack one essential ingredient: a live orchestra. Because, really, “The Nutcracker” is all about the music. Tchaikovsky’s score is a microcosm, a peek through the keyhole into a complete world, or rather into two worlds: the childhood of the mind and the childhood of dreams. By turns, the music is nervously excited (as in the overture), domestic (the party scene), disquieting (the music for the tree), irresistibly danceable (the waltzes for the snowflakes and flowers), and witty (the second-act divertissements). But then, suddenly, it begins to bleed emotion. The music that accompanies the children as they enter the snowy forest (on their way to the Land of the Sweets) and the powerful descending scale of the Sugarplum Fairy’s pas de deux are among the most moving passages Tchaikovsky ever wrote. Balanchine also had the good idea to steal the violin entr’acte from Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty” and use it for the scene in which Marie (or Clara in other versions) returns to the parlor, after bedtime, to tend to her broken Nutcracker. This haunting violin cadenza shifts the tone from one of domestic coziness to one that opens the way for the inexplicable events and overwhelming feelings that follow. It also foreshadows the six-note melody (essentially an ascending and descending scale) that accompanies the tree’s magical, and rather frightening, rise.
Along with the choreography, the manner in which the music is performed (tempi, dynamics) has a definite impact on the ballet’s feel. New York City Ballet’s version is crisp, fast, clean. It suits Balanchine’s crystal-clear, dynamic choreography, and the effect is bracing, brilliant, invigorating. American Ballet Theatre’s is slower, more opulent, more leisurely, allowing space for Ratmansky’s heavily detailed, layered, more theatrical take. (It must be said that the playing of ABT’s orchestra is also less precise, and that the pauses between the sections are too long, sapping some of the drive.)
Like many, I’ve been watching Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” for as long as I can remember, first on television, later live. Though created almost sixty years ago (in 1954), it still works, like a beautiful machine: musically, dramatically, and in terms of stagecraft and timing, it is virtually flawless. As my companion at the Dec. 21 matinée exclaimed, the moment in which the tree grows and grows, its tip eventually disappearing above the proscenium arch, is more exciting than anything in “Avatar”—mainly because it’s really happening, before your eyes, creaks and all, buoyed by a surging crescendo–the aforementioned six-note figure. The first act moves along briskly, with just a dollop of social detail to keep the eye engaged, as when all the girls pass over Fritz for their first formal dance, so that he is left to dance with his mother; or when Fritz conducts a little orchestra made up of his friends, and then instructs them to charge the girls; or the way Marie’s father can’t quite decide where to hang the final Christmas tree decoration. It also has an underlying tremolo of wonder, from the start: Marie’s slow-motion hand-shake with Drosselmeyer’s nephew; the way the children hold their arms up to the tree, as if it were a totem; the sudden transformation of the Stahlbaum living room into a cabinet of wonders, outsized but spare, and slightly askew. All this shape-shifting is too much for Marie, and she doesn’t quite trust her eyes; she goes around and touches each and every thing, from the muskets of the life-sized toy soldiers to the elongated ears of the drum-beating bunny (played by a tiny dance-student). The appearance of Marie’s mother, hair loose, holding a candle, like the sleepwalker in “La Sonnambula,” foreshadows the drama to come. This is where the violin melody from “Sleeping Beauty” comes in.
Balanchine calibrates the dancing carefully: there is less dancing in the first act, of course, and much of it comes as formalized social dance, in which the children join in, or imitate their elders. They bow, they slide their feet, they form passageways with their arms while others pass under them. The dances for the automatons (a soldier and two commedia dell’arte figures) provide an early diversion, nothing too complicated, but clear and lovely nonetheless, especially the dance of the toy soldier, with its flat-footed beaten jumps and landings on one knee. The “real” dancing begins with the Waltz of the Snowflakes: fleet, brilliantly geometric, space-eating designs radiating across the stage. I’ll admit, it sometimes looks a tad rushed to me, but one can’t help but gasp at the virtuosity and amplitude of the movement, Balanchine’s gift to the corps de ballet. In the second act, Balanchine again plays a few subtle tricks with the music. Firstly, he detaches the Sugarplum Fairy’s solo from Tchaikovsky’s grand, culminating pas de deux. The solo is moved to the beginning of the act, becoming Sugarplum’s greeting to her two young guests. But it is also a Balanchinean celebration of resplendent femininity. Balanchine makes Sugarplum a feminine ideal, a compendium of all the qualities to which Marie can aspire: delicacy, strength, grace. She needs no man; she is strong, beautiful, deeply self-assured—indeed, what could ever go wrong? Her solo is filled with sparkling jumps, floating half-turns in arabesque, and little hops on the beat that lead into strong, vertical balances on one leg. (On Dec. 21, Tiler Peck was, as always, expansive, naturally musical, and unemphatic. She is also developing a new womanliness, an appealing pliancy, that bodes well for other roles, like the introspective solo in “Emeralds.”) After this, the divertissements unfurl like little miniatures, never overwrought, one idea per dance, witty and clean. That is, until the waltz of the flowers and its airborne solo for Dewrop, who rides the melody—surprisingly dramatic for such a happy dance—like a wave, in a series of brisk, flying jumps. (On Dec. 21, Janie Taylor had a fiery tension, as if carrying an urgent message.) And then, finally, comes the pas de deux, grand and formal. The cavalier exists only to suport Sugarplum, to allow her to fully extend her range of motion, to catch her as she dives forward after a turn, to hold her aloft in floating lifts across the stage, and, in a final coup de théâtre, to pull her forward as she balances on a hidden platform that makes it appear as if she is floating across the surface of the stage. All pretense of storytelling has evaporated: this is a show, an abstraction, a symbol. Here, again, Tiler Peck was triumphant, but without airs; she is truly a wonder.
Ratmansky’s take could not be more different. He isn’t interested in symbols or abstractions, not really. His “Nutcracker” is more human, more down to earth, while at the same time it taps into a sense of exoticism and whimsy quite unlike Balanchine’s. His children are slightly older, which makes them less cute, and more complex. Clara (played by Mikaela Kelly on both Dec. 14 and 20) is tall, sensitive-looking, and un-mannered; she could be Alice in Wonderland, pretty and unspoiled, with a broad forehead and long arms. One feels the tension between the child she still is and the young woman she is about to become, while Fritz (played by the excellent Kai Monroe) is still the bratty boy, always making mischief. In general, the kids in this version are badly behaved, and Ratmansky has given them a little phrase that perfectly captures their petulance, a step-step-jump-with-the-feet-tucked-under that comes down right on the beat. The emphasis is on the clunk of their feet, not on the whoosh of the takeoff. The same goes for the snowflakes, who do a modified version of the jump, again timed to come down on the beat rather than use it as a launching pad. (The jump was a feature of the Czar Princess’s solo in his “Little Humpbacked Horse,” as well.) In general, Ratmanksy’s choreography here is more earth-bound, more lush, more complicated, and less airy than Balanchine’s.
The party scene is filled with layers of detail; it’s almost too much for the eye to see (and the stage at the Howard Gilman Opera House at BAM is a bit cramped), but at the same time, there is something exciting about the complexity of the activity. Ratmansky is asking us to look, look, and look some more. There are endless details of chracterization: the parents are young, and, especially when played by Alexandre Hammoudi and Leann Underwood, they appear to be very much in love. When Mr. Stahlbaum kisses his wife in the kitchen, she seems to blush a little. The children have private dramas, as when one little girl cries, not once, not twice, but three times, each time for a different reason. After the party, the two maids gossip and make fun of the guests, and one of them even does a funny little dance, imitating the grandma’s arthritic antics; but just as they are about to leave, one of them notices a spot on the floor and cleans it off with her apron and a bit of spit. A lovely touch. As is the fact that the Sugarplum Fairy (here, a non-dancing role) goes through the motions of playing the entire harp introduction to the Flower Waltz on a tiny golden harp held by one of her attendants, down to the last note. The dances for the toys are intricate; the one for Columbine and Harlequin, especially, becomes a complete commedia dell’arte pantomime, in which Harlequin bows and kisses his beloved’s feet and she happily claps her hands and turns her knees inward with delight. Gemma Bond, who was wonderful as the street urchin in the fall season run of Paul Taylor’s “Black Tuesday,” was once again vivid and funny here; her partner, Arron Scott, gave Harlequin a Petrouchkian feel. Here, magic (and terror) is not relegated to a separate space, but intrudes from the start; the seemingly spotless kitchen is overrun with rats, and, when Fritz breaks the Nutcracker, the other toys come to his rescue. It is an uncanny moment. As soon as Clara sees them, they freeze; not even Clara, the special child, is allowed to see the secret lives of toys.
In fact, Ratmansky’s “Nutcracker” has quite a dark side; sadness and death seem to lurk around every corner. In the battle with the mice, the toy soldiers tremble and curl up into little balls, terrified of dying. Afterward, the Nutcracker Prince lies prone, seemingly mortally injured. Clara breaks into tears. (This introduces what is probably the most moving image of Ratmansky’s ballet, the moment when the Nutcracker prince slowly rises from the ground and stands in a wide fourth position, his chest open to the sky, head back, as if breathing in life. This is echoed by his adult counterpart, standing across the stage.) Later, in the snowstorm, it is Clara’s turn; she loses consciousness, almost freezes to death. The strange sadness spills into the two pas de deux. The adult version of Clara appears vulnerable, overcome with emotion, which she expresses in the extreme twist of her shoulders, the deep bend of her torso, the fluttering of her legs. Instead of a symbol of perfection, Ratmansky gives us an image of struggle and partnership; growing up is hard, and we need each other in order to pull through. The pas de deux at the end of the first and second acts, are fiendishly difficult, with turning jumps into the man’s arms, multiple lifts-into-swoons, unassisted pirouettes in arabesque in which the man turns the woman by pushing her foot, and a lift in which he spins as she perches on his shoulder, faster and faster. It looks dangerous. In fact, both casts—Marcelo Gomes and Veronika Part, and Eric Tamm and Gillian Murphy—looked extremely challenged by the choreography. Ratmansky is pushing these dancers in new ways, asking them to be less clean and more free, more expansive, more multi-directional and shaded in their movement. Some clarity is lost, but the sense of struggle, and, at times, of triumph, is intense. These are great dancers, doing great things.
So, we have two powerful “Nutcrackers” in town. Balanchine’s is still the more perfect, but Ratmansky’s offers a powerful, at times brilliant alternative. What a gift to see a choreographer of such imaginative breadth (and one who is pushing ballet in new directions) take on this beloved, but at times overly domesticated, work. His vision has begun to impose itself; for the first time, while watching Balachine’s forest scene, I longed for a pas de deux. A new door has opened.
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