New York City Ballet
George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'
by Jerry Hochman
November 23, 2012 -- David Koch Theater, New York, NY
Every once in awhile I’m reminded why George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ is the classic it is.
I have to admit that I prefer versions of The Nutcracker that are more true to the somewhat darker story created by E.T.A. Hoffmann, which includes character development and a ‘coming of age’ underlying theme: the no-longer-performed-live-but-available-on-DVD version created by Mikhail Baryshnikov for American Ballet Theatre, for example, or ABT’s current production created by Alexei Ratmansky. But that may be because I’m an adult – or at least I’m supposed to be, and I’d rather get involved in the story than simply watch a spectacle. Be that as it may, and whether it was because it was opening night of the 2012 season, or because the audience was as alive and responsive as the dancers on stage, or perhaps because I was more in touch with my inner child than I’ve been in recent memory – New York City Ballet’s performance was two hours of soup-to-nuts magnificence.
Amidst the production-wide stellar performances (on and off stage) by both company members and apprentices, as well as the young dancers from the School of American Ballet, there were two that were truly memorable – Tiler Peck’s star turn as ‘Dewdrop’; and the thrilling orchestral leadership provided by NYCB’s outstanding conductor, Clotilde Otranto. I’ll address the performances later in this review.
Hoffmann’s original 1816 story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, was adapted by Alexandre Dumas pere in 1844, and it was this version that formed the libretto for the ballet created by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to a commissioned score by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. The ballet, which premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Peterburg in December, 1892, was not an immediate success (although Tchaikovsky’s music was). Although there were subsequent productions in Europe and the United States (one by the San Francisco Ballet premiered in 1944), it was George Balanchine’s version, which debuted in 1954, that rescued the ballet from relative obscurity and turned it into a money machine. Reportedly, Balanchine selected The Nutcracker to be the first full length NYCB production, at least in part, because by populating the cast with children played by real children rather than adults in the children’s roles, ticket sales to family and friends were guaranteed. He was right, of course -- the ballet has been a money-maker ever since [By my unofficial count, the current production includes 64 young dancers, give or take (some dance two roles). Do the math.]
But George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ is more than just Black Friday for ballet companies. While the choreography (particularly in Act I) is relatively non-existent, and some of the Act II choreography is pedestrian [e.g., ‘Hot Chocolate’ (the Spanish dance), a lot of it is wonderful (Marzipan; Dew Drop; Candy Cane; Tea (Chinese)], and the choreography for the Sugarplum Fairy’s pas de deux is wickedly difficult. And the staging (particularly in the often overlooked detail in Act I) is incomparable.
As good as Balanchine’s choreography is, however, it is matched by Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s brilliantly magical sets, the costumes by Karinska, and the original lighting by Ronald Bates (updated and executed by Mark Stanley). And of course there’s the Tchaikovsky score. It’s nice when everything comes together. It’s also invaluable that this NYCB production reflects that rarest of qualities – sufficient rehearsal time. Every step, every gesture, seems to have been hard-wired from infancy – or at least since the dancers took their first steps at SAB. [This season, the production segues seamlessly into NYCB’s winter 2013 season’s Tchaikovsky Celebration.]
The story is no doubt familiar to everyone. Marie (Balanchine restored the name of the child in the Hoffmann original – it had been changed to Clara in the Petipa/Ivanov version and it is that name that has been used most subsequent ballets) and her brother Fritz await the arrival of friends and relatives to the Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve open house. Marie’s darkly eccentric godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, entertains the children with magical tricks, and, accompanied by his Nephew, presents Marie with a toy Nutcracker, which her brother subsequently breaks. [Boys will be boys and girls will be ballerinas.] Drosselmeier tends to the Nutcracker’s wounds, returns the toy to Marie, and then he and the guests leave the Stahlbaum home. Instead of going to bed, however, Marie slips away to return to her wounded Nutcracker. She falls asleep holding him, and then begins to dream.
The rest – the growing Christmas Tree, the Mice and Mouse King, the Nutcracker morphing into the life-size Nutcracker, the battle, the shoe and the sword and the severed crown, the Nutcracker’s transformation into Drosselmeier’s nephew after being freed from the curse that had imprisoned him in wood, and the fantasyland visit to the Land of the Sweets – needs no elaboration. And the structure of the ballet is broadly similar to other Petipa/Ivanov ballets of the period. In Act I, the ‘reality’ exposition, instead of a birthday celebration, we have a Christmas Eve celebration, and instead of peasants and nobles dancing, we have children and adults. Act I segues to a ‘dream’ scene, but instead of Solor’s hallucinogenic-induced reverie or Don Quixote’s post-traumatic vision, we have the Marie/Clara dream/nightmare. And in Act II, instead of a fairy tale palace celebration/wedding filled with various divertissements, we have the Land of the Sweets filled with various divertissements. And in the end, instead of the apotheosis of Odette and Siegfried or Nikia and Solor, we have Marie and the Nutcracker/Nephew/nascent boyfriend transported out of fantasyland to wherever Marie’s dream will next take them – or to when she awakes, whichever comes first.
This production is usually what I would consider an entertaining spectacle. Glorious to watch, but not much more than that for anyone over the age of 14 or not related to a dancer on stage. Friday's opening night performance was a dream/reality check.
I have written previously that Tiler Peck is at the top of her game. But that phrase doesn’t say enough: at Friday’s performance, Ms. Peck turned Dewdrop into a work of performance art. Changing speeds; adding flourish where appropriate – it was a multi-faceted performance that was magical to watch. Whether you get to see her dance on the small screen (on TV last week – on ‘Dancing With the Stars’) (an aside – go Melissa!) or in a theater, she dances with a combination of warmth and vibrancy that makes you not just appreciate, but smile (and want to see her performance again and again).
But every dancer at this opening night was ‘on’: as I’ve previously written, Rebecca Krohn has the ability to transmit extraordinary sensuality, but also the stage persona that makes it seem that she has no idea she knows she’s doing it. Coffee requires understated but obvious sensuality, but is easy to dance ‘over the top.’ I’ve seen Ms. Krohn’s Coffee previously and thought she was perfect. Last night she was, somehow, better than perfect. Erica Pereira was delightfully engaging, as she always is, in the Marzipan divertissement, as was Daniel Ulbricht as the lead Candy Cane. The effort needed to execute Balanchine’s choreography for the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier showed in the performances of Maria Kowroski and Jonathan Stafford, but they succeeded splendidly. The apparent effort will diminish as the season progresses. And it was good to welcome back Robert LaFosse and his accomplished Drosselmeier.
Other cast members all rose to the occasion: they include Devin Alberta’s Soldier and Antonio Carmena’s Tea, which were executed superbly, as were Lauren Lovette’s Columbine (echoes of Coppelia), and Sara Adams’s Harlequin (both of whom also ‘led’ the Snowflakes), and Lauren King and Ashley Laracey gathered the Flowers with verve. Georgina Pazcoguin and Chase Finlay were the vibrant leads in Hot Chocolate, and Andrew Scordato provided an entertaining Mother Ginger. The usually overlooked roles of Dr. Stahlbaum and his wife were performed with panache, enthusiasm and sensitivity by Ask la Cour and Gwyneth Muller.
All the children in various roles (Angels, Flowers, Candy Canes, Polichinelles, Soldiers, Mice, Children at the Stahlbaum’s) were delightfully competent. It is not possible to identify them all without using more space than is available on the internet, or to identify all those I particularly noticed, but, after Act I, it was a kick and a half to see several of these talented young dancers (friends of Marie) joining their parents in the audience and acting like your ordinary extraordinary kid next door. As the Nephew/Nutcracker Prince, Lleyton Ho gave an accomplished performance. But Claire Abraham's Marie was more than accomplished. It seems that every girl that NYCB casts as Marie is an extraordinarily talented young performer. But Ms. Abraham provided one of the finest Marie’s I can recall.
One final observation. I have, at times, commented on the conducting at certain ballet performances. More often than not, as with ABT, to complain about it. But I’ve recognized previously that Clotilde Otranto is a superb conductor. Superb is an understatement. At ballet performances, the conductor is the almost unrecognized director of the performance, who can alter the pace and sharpness of a production as much as anyone on stage. Time after time, Ms. Otranto makes the NYCB orchestra more than the extraordinary collection of musicians it already is. She has a dancer’s sensitivity – essential for any ballet conductor. Whenever she conducts she makes the orchestra come alive, and her contribution to a performance is as an equal partner with the choreographer and the dancers. At this performance, as wonderful as the dancers and sets and staging and the Tchaikovsky music already is, Ms. Otranto’s conducting made the entire production sound, and look, even better.
This viewer has seen George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ more times than I can recall. But I’ve never liked it or enjoyed it more than after Friday’s performance. For this balletomaniac, as well as the sold out multi-generational audience, it is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Read related stories in the press and see what others are saying -- visit the forum.