After having danced professionally for thirteen years, no Yule season is complete without at least one “Nutcracker.” Yes, I hear parents of ballet dancers the world over groaning (and not a few ballet dancers too) at the very thought of *that* ballet. It’s ubiquitous this time of year (largely because it’s so damned popular that it pays for itself and then some for most companies). Moreover, anyone who has ever danced this particular ballet surely has very clear and definite views on how it should be performed. I am no exception. Anyone who knows me will tell you I have clear and definite views on *everything*. That includes the “Nutcracker.”
My oath sister was in town this past week for the holidays and I took her to see Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” and “La Fille du Regiment” at the Met. I shall take them each in turn here, for the latter one I loved and the former I wouldn’t walk across the street to see again and I’m going to tell you why.
Now when I danced I loathed Balanchine. I was (and to some great degree still am) a traditionalist. To my mind, Balanchine ruined classical ballet. That doesn’t mean that I don’t like some of his ballets. I do (though I never enjoyed dancing his choreography—he makes more use of syncopated movement than Petipa and other earlier choreographers). I’ve mellowed over the years though and lately have been enjoying his ballets greatly. Not the “Nutcracker,” however and let me tell you why.
Firstly, I do not pay good money to see young students of the New York City Ballet School (or any other ballet school) performing the majority of roles. It’s become the custom in many ballet companies to have children swarming the stage for the majority of divertissements. I hate that. Children belong, in my opinion, in two places in this ballet: the party scene and perhaps the Mother Ginger scene. That’s *it*. I don’t even much care to have kids playing Clara (sometimes—as in this production-- called Marie) and Fritz, if truth be told. At the very least, they should be played by teens. It allows for more the psychological elements of the story to be emphasized and frankly, it’s much more satisfying to watch. I think it’s unprofessional to have little kids doing those parts in ostensibly professional productions. The upside of having children throughout the ballet is, apparently, that it makes it much more accessible to children in the audience. Still, it makes it painfully boring for the adults and severely limits what one can do with the choreography. It turns it into the big stage equivalent of a school recital.
Secondly, the choreography was a mess, especially the battle scene. Again, part of this was the fact that both mouse and soldiers were played by children. What can one do with pre-pubescent ballet students who have neither the physical strength nor trained technique for elaborate choreography? (The best battle sequence I’ve seen, btw, was Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version of the “Nutcracker,” which emphasized the darker psychological aspects of the tale. NYCB’s version didn’t even come close, though it was amusing at times. Also, NYCB’s version juxtaposes some of the variations in the second act for no apparent reason and it breaks up the Sugar Plum’s pas de deux as a result.
In the second act the costumes were awful. Neon yellow pointe shoes…and that’s the best that can be said. But over and above the colorfulness – which to some, might be a plus—the tutus were blocky and cut the line of the body in an unflattering way. The sets were ok and the costumes for the first act were fine. I actually, despite the very little children, enjoyed watching the first act party scene. It was interesting to me to see the children imitating adult customs – meeting and greeting friends, dancing, etc. It was clear from the choreography that they were learning their accepted gender and class roles from outright imitation of the adults exactly as happened in Victorian society. That was fascinating to see in miniature.
The dancing was a mixed bag as well…what little we actually were able to see performed by trained, adult dancers. The sugar plum fairy was one of the worst that I have ever seen. She was danced by Teresa Reichlen, who is apparently a principle dancer in NYCB. Maybe she was having an off day, but she danced woodenly and without any lyricism. Her partner was equally blah (though he was dead silent in his jumps, which was quite nice to see). Reichlen doesn’t have the best feet either, though that was not my objection to her. There was no lightness or magic about her performance. It was as mundane and wooden a performance as one could give. Quite disappointing. (I would also add that the girl playing Marie also couldn’t act or rather didn’t in this performance, being as equally wooden as Reichlen). Moreover, she and her partner were slightly off the music at one point in the pas.
There were bright spots in the production. In the first act, the interaction between the adults and children was well choreographed. Moreover, the dancers playing Frau and Herr Stahlbaum (Kaitlyn Gilliland and Justin Peck) moved beautifully with a visible lyrical grace. I would very much like to see them in more demanding roles in the future (though I greatly approve of having dancers in their prime dancing the role of the parents. It adds verisimilitude).
In the second act, the Arabian Dance, performed by Megan LeCrone, was delightful, with sensual, exotic choreography imitating Arabian and other Middle Eastern styles. The lead male dancer in the dance of the candy canes (Giovanni Villalobos) was amazing. The ease of his leaps was a delight to watch. The man playing Mother Ginger (Cameron Dieck) was a total ham –as that character should be. The best part of the entire ballet was the performance of Lauren King as the dew drop fairy. She was exceptional: light, graceful, emotive, with rich, fluid technique. She’s a dancer that I will be watching in the future. Of everyone in the performance, she and Justin Peck stood out the most for me simply by virtue of the skill and beauty of their dancing and their emotive grace.
Overall, I would not ever go back to see this particular version of the “Nutcracker.” For a proper, traditional version, try Royal Ballet. For a unique and somewhat darker version, try Pacific Northwest Ballet. But don’t pay good money to see a bunch of half trained children running around the stage with NYCB. Ugh. If NYCB is your thing, wait until later in the season and catch Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco” or “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” They’re much more satisfying to watch.
See Wendy Whelan in the Arabian Dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nRmRTBaypo&feature=related
A general preview of NYCB’s “Nutcracker” (this was not the cast we saw): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXfC2puds1Y
Maryinsky Ballet company in the “Nutcracker’s” Spanish Dance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J0nuGa7-QpU&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PLF1F7166CDF8CAB67
A scene from Pacific Northwest Ballet's Nutcracker: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z6SV8EXw5jM
Coming next: a review of Donizetti’s “Fille du Regiment” at the Met with Lawrence Brownlee and Nino Machaidze, as well as a cameo by Kiri Te Kanawa.