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American Ballet Theatre

'The Nutcracker'

by Jerry Hochman

December 7, 2012 -- Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY

Compared to George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, which is continuing its New York City Ballet run until the end of the year, Alexei Ratmansky’s version for American Ballet Theatre, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music until December 16, looks like a poor cousin. But looks are deceiving. The NYCB production, honed to blockbuster perfection since its first performance in 1954, is impeccably staged and choreographed, with not a visual image or choreographic step out of place. But except for balletomaniacs who go to refresh their memories after several years, or to bring children, or to see individual dancers’ performances as I do, it is the spectacular production that provides the indelible memories. For all its faults, and to this viewer there are many, the indelible memories that Mr. Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker provides are derived more subtly – from its sense of humanity, and from the warmth of its heart.

And the heart within ABT’s production comes through even when the lead performances are somewhat disappointing, as they were at Friday’s opening night performance. I’ll address the performances later. First, I’ll discuss Mr. Ratmansky’s luminous production.

What makes Mr. Ratmansky’s vision different from others (and admittedly I cannot claim to have seen every Nutcracker production in the New York metropolitan area, much less around the country) is that it is presented through young Clara’s eyes. And rather than inviting his audience to participate and feel involved (which must happen for any theatrical production to be successful) by just watching and viscerally responding to what the performers do on stage, Mr. Ratmansky invites his Nutcracker audience to look into young Clara’s heart, and to experience her dream themselves.

Understanding this is critical to understanding not just the obvious fact that there are two sets of Claras and two Nutcracker princes, but to understanding Mr. Ratmansky’s choreographic choices – choices that I at first found confusing and disappointing, but which now, frankly, I love. Like so many other Ratmansky pieces, it takes a little effort to deduce his thematic (and at times choreographic) intent, but when you ignore preconceptions of what The Nutcracker should be, and let Mr. Ratmansky’s vision speak for itself on its terms, his concept hits like a lightning bolt. On repeated viewings, I’ve come to find Mr. Ratmansky’s Nutcracker to be enthralling and both intellectually and emotionally compelling.

As is apparent from the opening scene, Mr. Ratmasky’s production also wears not only its heart, but its intelligence, on its sleeve. The scene takes place in the kitchen of the Stahlbaums’ home, as the Cook and his assistants (the Maids) prepare the food for the Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve celebration. The scene serves several significant conceptual purposes. First, the characters in the scene are doing something, rather than just being excited that the celebration will shortly begin. Second, it is comedy – almost slapstick – on a high level. Third, it introduces the primary characters, each of whom make their way into the kitchen – including Clara and Drosselmeyer. And fourth, it introduces the mice. This early introduction of the mice works on several levels. These are ‘reality’ mice – mice that one would expect to inhabit the nooks and crannies of a kitchen, and which provide the grist for comic scares. The scene also introduces the character of the ‘Little Mouse,’ who is a continuing hilarious presence throughout the piece. But most important, it provides a reason for the mice being part of Clara’s dream: Clara wanders into the kitchen, sees the mice, and is scared of them. This little vignette, which unfolds in seconds, is a critical focal point of the scene and a predicate to Clara’s dream/nightmare to come: why else would Clara have dreamed of those nasty mice, if she hadn’t seen them and been scared by them before?

But like the rest of the scene, and much of the balance of Act I, parts of it are muddy, and the choreography/staging is often disappointing.

For example, Drosselmeyer enters the kitchen looking mysterious and somewhat malevolent, bringing with him a life-size Nutcracker ‘doll.’ But in the process of leaving the kitchen and the stage, the life-size Nutcracker disappears into the wings, and, concurrently, Drosselmeyer whips out a doll-size Nutcracker from under his cape and displays it to the audience. Thereafter, the life-size Nutcracker doll and the doll-size Nutcracker are used somewhat interchangeably during much of the rest of Act I, leaving the audience to wonder why the life-size Nutcracker doll is there one minute and gone the next, replaced by the doll-size Nutcracker. Perhaps this can be explained as the product of Clara’s imagination (to Clara, the doll-sized Nutcracker looks like a ‘real’ life-size Nutcracker, but when adults appear and intrude on her imagination, the Nutcracker returns to its real size). But whether this is the meaning behind the two different sized toy Nutcrackers, and, if so, whether Drosselmeyer has anything to do with ‘imposing’ this alternative reality on Clara, is not clearly indicated. In any event, to this viewer, Drosselmeyer’s initial appearance in, and exit from, the kitchen makes no coherent sense. I would think that this could be more clearly staged..

Also, the choreography for the scene, and for much of Act I, has the performers dancing in unison. The Maids dance the same steps at essentially the same time. It looks silly – which may have been Mr. Ratmansky’s intent – but it also looks strange. Worse, after the opening kitchen scene yields to the Stahlbaum’s celebration, the children, for the most part, stamp their feet in unison to display impatience or to throw a collective mini-tantrum. But a group of young children never act in unison – one child usually follows another’s lead. As staged, it looks artificial.

Further, as Clara’s dream/nightmare begins, everything in the room grows in her imagination: the walls, the chair, the tree. But while the two-dimensionality of the supersized room and its contents are understandable (this is Clara’s dream, not some opulent representation of Clara’s dream), the metamorphosis of the Christmas tree seems to this viewer to have been poorly handled. All that remains of the tree, after it grows, is a corner of it sticking out from the stage wing. It looks like something a three-year old might have imagined, not Clara.

All this sounds like nit-picking, and it is. But the viewer/critic in me wants all of this production to be as good as the rest of it: most everything else is wonderful, and filled with the sense of ‘humanity’ that I have observed and noted previously permeates Mr. Ratmansky’s work. The Act I Christmas Eve gathering is populated by real people – not would-be aristocrats. The ‘Little Mouse’ is an inspired and endearingly funny creation. The dance of the “Snowflakes,” which I intensely disliked on first viewing because I thought it needlessly scary, I now consider a work of art that makes a snowfall and blizzard look the way they might look in Clara’s dream. Even more, the Snowflakes seem to move like snowflakes move – gently when the air is calm; chaotically when the wind blows. And I consider the visualization of the Snowflakes collapsing to the ground, at the conclusion of the scene to be sheer genius. [The dancer-snowflakes ‘hit’ the ground, rise up a bit from the center of their bodies before collapsing to the ground the way real snowflakes ‘rise’ a bit when they reach the ground.].

Act II continues this extraordinary level of craftsmanship. The scene opens in the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy (the Sugar Plum Fairy is a non-dancing role in this production). Clara’s fantasy land isn’t just ‘there’, and doesn’t reflect a child’s preoccupation with sweets; in Mr. Ratmansky’s vision it is a ‘real’ fantasy land populated by ‘real’ fantasy people who have some depth of character, the way Clara might have dreamed it. The anticipation by the inhabitants of this ‘real’ fantasy land of the arrival of Clara and the ‘living’ Nutcracker Prince, who had been transformed to ‘real’ life by killing the Mouse King after Clara distracted the Mouse King by throwing one of her shoes at him (though there is no mention of a ‘curse’ that had imprisoned the boy in wood), is palpable and ‘real.’ [Both of these incarnations, the doll-sized Nutcracker toy and the young Nutcracker Prince are unfortunately denominated as the ‘The Nutcracker Boy.’] And the image of the inhabitants of this fantasy land looking through the metal-like fencing that separates the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the ‘real’ world to see whether the visitors had arrived yet, with their faces softly illuminated, is another masterful stroke of genius (lighting by the redoubtable Jennifer Tipton).

The dances that form the choreographic skeleton of the piece are all, with some exception, very well done. In particular, the dance for the Harlequin and Columbine in Act I is complex and interesting, and the comic dance for the Grandmother and Grandfather that Mr. Ratmansky concocted is a nice humorous touch (as I mentioned in a review two years ago, someone should recruit Betty White to play the Grandmother). While the Spanish Dance in Act II and the dance for the ‘Nutcracker Sisters’ (respectively, ‘Hot Chocolate’ and ‘Marzipan’ in the NYCB production) are not exceptional, the ‘Arabian’ Dance (‘Coffee’ in the NYCB production), which initially was a brutal disappointment to me, I now find to be an hilariously inventive way to turn the sensuality in the Balanchine version on its head. [Instead of one very sensuous dancer performing…sensuously, and in the process appearing to seduce the audience (or at least the males in it), in this version the male lead (who I previously described as looking like Mr. Clean), is hassled by a group of ‘harem’ girls dancing sensuously with the intent of seducing him, and he’s portrayed as ‘enough already’ uninterested – until the harem girls pretend to play hard-to-get. It’s very clever and very funny, and as I mentioned in my prior review two years ago, having four harem dancers dancing sensuously rather than one isn’t such a bad thing.]

The highlight of the Act II divertissements, and to this viewer the choreographic gem of the piece, is the dance for the Flowers and the Bees (‘Dewdrop’/‘Waltz of the Flowers’ in the Balanchine version). It is a spectacular bit of choreographic stagecraft for both the Bees and the Flowers, and the culmination, with the flowers sequentially tossed from one Bee to another, is the bee’s knees, and deservedly draws enthusiastic applause every time.

[Again, however, there is room for nit-picking. In Clara’s dream, it appears that the Nutcracker Boy came from the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. He is recognized there – and he has sisters who dance one of the Act II divertissements. But the connection is not clearly made. And at the conclusion of each of the divertissements, in this viewer’s opinion the dancers should bow first to Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, in whose honor this celebration has taken place, not to the audience.]

But all this, as good as it is, is gloss – essential to the production as it may be. To this viewer the most significant reflection of Mr. Ratmansky’s concept is seen in the interaction between Clara and her Nutcracker Boy, and the conceptions of them (identified as ‘Clara, the Princess’ and ‘Nutcracker, the Prince’) that Clara conjures in her dream.

‘Clara, the Princess’ and ‘Nutcracker, the Prince’ are not ‘adult’ versions of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, but imaginations in Clara's dream of what she and her young nutcracker prince friend would be like when they grew up; their mature selves seen through the prism of a young girl. So, naturally, some of what happens looks a little childish – for example, ‘Princess’ Clara peeking sheepishly from behind a curtain in between dances, and looking like she’s just been given the greatest of presents when Clara’s dream Prince asks her to marry him at the conclusion of their divertissement (with everyone living happily ever after). Both actions looked silly to me on first viewing, but with the realization that these characters are little Clara’s dream of them, that’s exactly why they’re there: they’re gently juvenile and perfectly appropriate.

The display of the relationship between Clara and the Nutcracker Boy, and Clara’s dream vision of Princess Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, is seamless, and stunning in its simplicity. After some child-like horseplay between little Clara and the Nutcracker Prince in mid-snowfall in Act I, Clara begins to see more in the Nutcracker Boy than a playmate. Then the action stops. And while it’s stopped, as if in freeze-frame, little Clara dreams (a dream within a dream) of dancing with her Prince. The vision of little Clara quietly looking at her little Prince, while dreaming of the two of them as adults, and the imagined adult versions of them materializing on stage as she dreams, is magical, breathtaking, and heartwarming. If you’re sitting in the audience and don’t choke up at this visualization of what it was once like to be a child and to dream, you have no heart.

It is customary to note the young performers (all, in this case, students at ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School) summarily, and with little elaboration, at the end of a Nutcracker review. That would be inappropriate here. Young Clara and the Nutcracker Boy are almost constantly on stage, and they have significantly more acting and movement responsibility than in many other Nutcracker productions. And the Little Mouse is the comic soul of the piece. All the young dancers performed well, but in this version the lead children, Clara and the Nutcracker Boy, as well as the Little Mouse, are critically important characters and should be considered front and center.

Clara was portrayed by young Adelaide Clauss, and I found her portrayal to be extraordinary. More than just knowing what she was supposed to do, she performed with animated radiance and sensitivity. I’ve seen Philip Perez dance the Nutcracker Boy previously, and he’s grown in the role. He did an excellent job as well. And Justin Souriau-Levine, who I also have previously seen dance the Little Mouse, is a fantastic little comic spark plug.

The performances by the lead ‘adult’ incarnations of Clara’s dream are less praiseworthy. Although part of the problem may have been the unfortunate result of a cast change [Eric Tamm (‘Nutcracker, the Prince’) replaced the injured Herman Cornejo)], the fact that Xiomara Reyes (‘Clara, the Princess’) and Mr. Tamm didn’t ‘mesh’ was unfortunate.

Mr. Tamm, still a member of the corps, is a tall, impressive-looking dancer, who fits the role of the Prince (essentially, more Prince Charming than a Nutcracker Prince) well. When he danced on his own, his performance was admirable and promising, and his partnering was attentive. But Ms. Reyes seemed off and uncomfortable in her role, as if she had flown in the night before. As a result, she looked to this viewer as if she was pushing too hard, trying more to be the ballerina than a character in Clara’s dream. More importantly, there were partnering and timing glitches (lifts that weren’t clean; turns where she was ahead of the music and ahead of his partnering) that made their performances appear rough and inadequately rehearsed. [I have not seen all the dancers who are cast as Clara this season. But of those I’ve seen, I recommend performances by Veronika Part, who transmits Mr. Ratmansky’s vision (in anything) more completely and more accurately than anyone else, and Sarah Lane, who visually fits the role of Clara’s dream of herself as a Princess perfectly.]

Other roles were performed with greater success. Ms. Lane and Daniil Simkin were superb in the Chinese divertissement, as were Gemma Bond and Craig Salstein as the Columbine and Harlequin in Act I. Mr. Salstein, together with Mikhail Ilyin and Aaron Scott, were the lively Russians, and Patrick Ogle and his harem girls (Nicola Curry, Isadora Loyola, Kelley Potter, and Devon Teuscher) were the hen-pecked Arabian and the harem hens that hilariously harass him. Nicole Graniero and Luis Ribagorda did a fine job as the Canteen Keeper and Recruit in Act I. Zhong-Jing Fang was a formidable Sugar Plum Fairy, Kevin Easter (accompanied by lively little Polchinlles and the peripatetic Little Mouse), was an entertaining Mother Ginger, and Katherine Williams was a stand-out as one of the Parents in Act I. Victor Barbee did his usual fine job as Drosselmeyer.

In my review of several performances of Mr. Ratmansky’s version during its initial season two years ago, I described it as a Nutcracker to cherish. It still is. It is a creation that both children and adults can feel in their hearts, and New York audiences are richer for the opportunity to see it.


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