A "Nutcracker" Trip
Balanchine’s The Nutcracker”
Center for the Arts
My mother made a great braised brisket. It was hearty, life affirming and a fixture during the family gatherings. But my mother did not invent the recipe herself. It came down from her mother, who got it from her mother who got it from hers and so on… The route of transmission did not stop there. It veered off to my aunt and a family friend, who doubtless have passed it to others. As this delicious formula moved from person to person, it went through slight changes which could be reviewed at various holidays—one makes the brisket more tangy, another sharper, still another nutty. But it still bears the mark of the original.
A ballet could be thought of as a recipe. Productions might have different accents, costumes or scenery but the choreography remains true and the intent, hopefully, remains constant.
“George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™” celebrated its 50th anniversary this winter. Balanchine’s ballet has not been around longer than my family’s brisket recipe but it has had a much wider influence. It was not the first “Nutcracker” production in the United States, that honor belongs to the one mounted by William Christensen in 1944 in San Francisco, but Balanchine’s ballet, which made its first appearance at the New York City Ballet in February 1954, became a blockbuster and became a model for other companies.
Balanchine’s holiday classic is not just the province of the New York City Ballet. Several professional and pre-professional companies perform the work with the blessing of the Balanchine Trust. In addition to the New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Alabama Ballet, and Oregon Ballet Theater also perform Balanchine’s “Nutcracker,” as well as the student groups at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and the Stamford Center for the Arts. It used to be the “Nutcracker” of choice at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Grand Rapids Ballet, but those productions have been replaced.
I have always wanted to see Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” as done by companies around the country and the anniversary afforded me the perfect time to achieve my goal. Several major debuts brought me to NYCB in early December. The next week, I traveled to Philadelphia for Opening Night of Pennsylvania Ballet’s run. I capped my journey with two performances in Stamford, Connecticut.
Balanchine’s production is a trip back to childhood, but with plenty of adult enjoyment. It blissfully avoids dark psychology of other “Nutcrackers.” Marie learns to be a woman by watching first her mother and then the Sugarplum Fairy, not by being seduced by Herr Drosselmeier or a grownup Nutcracker Prince.
During his time at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, Balanchine often performed in the “Nutcracker.” He took part in the children’s dances and later was a notable interpreter of the Candy Cane dance. To this day, the Nutcracker Prince’s Act II mime is done the way Balanchine learned it in his youth and several other dances are influenced by the original Lev Ivanov production.
During his lifetime, Balanchine made changes to his “Nutcracker.” Some of those were major revisions, some just tinkerings. Cavaliers have been dispatched and recussitated, Arabian was a man with four parrots and a hookah before becoming a seductive voluptuous woman, and sets and costumes have been changed to accommodate the move from City Center to the larger State Theater at Lincoln Center.
I always think I’ll coast through the first act and wake up for the variation-heavy second act, but I always get caught up in all the action of the Stahlbaum family’s Christmas celebrations. Notable are the warmth of the characters and the seriousness of the children’s dances. As a child, Balanchine took part in many children’s productions at the Mariinsky. His choreography of children never dumbs down their parts. Instead it uses steps molded to their ability but still interesting to the eye. The School of the American Ballet students performed the children’s parts with stunning professionalism. These are the NYCB dancers of tomorrow.
More and more these days the leads in the “Nutcracker” are used as a training ground for the principals of the future.In two performances I saw this winter, soloists Ashley Bouder and Megan Fairchild appeared as the Sugarplum Fairy. Ms. Bouder, who made made her debut at an afternoon student performance two days prior, was astonishing, while Ms. Fairchild was promising.
Ms. Fairchild was the Dewdrop to Ms. Bouder’s Sugarplum, while the statuesque corps de ballet dancer Teresa Reichlen essayed the role for the second time on December 5 with impressive results. They stood out in a production that is still the standard.
Pennsylvania Ballet first performed Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” in November 1968. Osvaldo Riofrancos staged the first act, Robert Rodham choreographed the snow scene and the second act divertissements were by Balanchine. The company, which has a strong connection with the great choreographer dating to its founding in 1963, did not incorporate the Balanchine first act until December 1987.
The Philadelphia production is much lighter visually than NYCB’s, more pastoral than German. In New York, the ballet’s overture is played while a backdrop is shown with an angel and a shining star. At the Academy of Music, the opening drop features a lace border in which three-dimensional winter scenes are projected.
The Stahlbaum home is richer than its New York cousin, with higher ceilings and pillars. At NYCB, the growing tree is set to the side while in Philadelphia it is in the middle, framed by columns and put before a bay window. The costumes and sofa are more Laura Ashley than Nuremberg.
But the action is the same. Drosselmeier, who is a little more dapper, still eats some walnuts with his nephew, the young girls still rock their dolls, and Marie's younger brother Fritz is still a brat. But in a throwback to the early days of the NYCB production, some girls take the parts of boys.
The fight between the mice and the Nutcracker Prince and his soldiers have always been a romp, thanks to Jerome Robbins’ staging, but it is even harder to take Philadelphia’s mice seriously, especially with their Peter Pan collars.
The pastoral feeling continued in Act II. Instead of the Sugarplum’s long romantic tutu, PA Ballet’s ballerinas wear a shorter pink lace skirt with a simple bodice during the Sugarplum Fairy’s opening solo. Other costumes continue the bucolic feel, including a Marzipan Shepherdess who looks more shepherdess than marzipan. The flowers in Waltz of the Flowers really do resemble blossoms, while their counterparts in New York wear dresses that sometimes look like 1970s bridesmaid gowns.
If the costumes are lighter, so are the performances. At NYCB, the role of Dewdrop is usually torn through in a fearless, thrilling and high-flying fashion. PA Ballet principal Amy Aldridge satisfied the demands of the choreography, which features jumps and turns of all kinds, while never spinning out of control. Ms. Aldridge skips effortlessly through allegro roles yet never loses her calm center.
New PA Ballet principal Julie Diana made a nervous debut as the Sugarplum Fairy. This was disappointing because she made such a splash in November as the Striptease Girl in Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. Zachery Hench, who performed in the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet production as a youth, made a better impression as the Cavalier. He was bold in his brief solos, eating up space in his manege of coupe-jetés and swinging freely through some closing grands pirouettes.
The children in Philadelphia were below par, especially compared to the professionalism of the SAB kids. A great effect in the second act is the way the angels seem to float above the stage in their bell-like costumes. This is achieved by shuffling and bending the knees. Unfortunately, the angels in Philadelphia, culled from schools around Pennsylvania but mostly from The Rock School, lifted their skirts so their feet showed through. One hopes this was corrected later in the run.
If the SAB students appear so expert it is because they’ve had practice. The Stamford production, staged by Darla Hoover with assistance by other former and current NYCB dancers, is built around them and others from area schools. Advanced students (C2 and D levels) dance all of the corps de ballet roles and many of the solo variations—all but the Sugarplum Fairy, Cavalier and Dewdrop. Those lead roles are usually taken by NYCB principal dancers. In the performances I saw, American Ballet Theatre principal Paloma Herrera and NYCB principal Jock Soto danced the Sugarplum and Cavalier during my first performances and NYCB stars Alexandra Ansanelli and Damian Woetzel reprised their lead performances from the State Theater. ABT soloist Monique Meunier was the Dewdrop.
The Stamford effort is basically a junior New York City Ballet production, but without any diminution of purpose. The sets are close to those at Lincoln Center, as are the costumes.
For dance aficionados who like to handicap dancers at the annual SAB spring workshop, these performances in Stamford are heaven. Promising dancers abound, such as the elegant couple, Olga Krochik and Max van der Sterre, in Hot Chocolate, a bounding Isabel Vondermuhll as Marzipan and the sinuous Courtney Muscroft as Coffee (Arabian).
One of the biggest discoveries for me was a rediscovery of Herrera’s charms. An international star, Ms. Herrera recently has appeared to me too studied and stilted. Her early enthusiasm was replaced by mannerism and a lack of musicality. But she looked released as the Sugarplum Fairy, as if she found the return to the SAB fold (she is a former SAB student) comforting. Her solo was natural and graceful, her strong technique cloaked in warmth. In the pas de deux, Ms. Herrera luxuriated in the expert partnering of Mr. Soto.
The role of the Dewdrop also brought Ms. Meunier back to her birthright. A former student of the first Hot Chocolate dancer Yvonne Mounsey, she attended SAB and was a standout Dewdrop at NYCB, where she rose to the rank of principal. The lush dancer has been underused since moving over to ABT in 2002, but was the workhorse in Stamford, performing the taxing role of Dewdrop brilliantly in all seven performances, often back-to-back in one day.
While the coaching imprint on Ms. Fairchild and Ms. Reichlen was still visible on their performances, Ms. Meunier made Dewdrop her own. Her dynamic range within even a short phrase is astounding as she lengthened or quickened the music depending on her mood and built her performance to an ecstatic climax. When people compare Ms. Meunier with Suzanne Farrell, this is what they are talking about—no two performances are the same. And the two I saw in Stanford were subtly different.
After traveling through four states and five performances, I am just as enchanted with Balanchine’s production as I was during my first viewing in the early 1970s. My pulse still quickens when the Christmas tree grows, I’m still involved in the mouse battle (always watching for the moment when the bunny pulls on the Mouse King’s tail), and my mind remains boggled by the sheer invention and beauty of the Snow scene and the Waltz of the Flowers. I can certainly say this: “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” travels well.
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