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The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

The Kirov's Gargoyle Nutcracker

The Nutcracker
The Kirov Ballet
Opera House, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC
Tuesday, December 23, 2003

by George Jackson
copyright © 2003 by George Jackson

Reviewing a Nutcracker requires confession. How does the reviewer feel about the Nutcracker?

My first Nutcracker encounters were with condensed versions, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo's staged by Alexandra Fedorova after the 1892 original by Lev Ivanov and the Sadler's Wells Theatre Ballet's by Frederick Ashton. Most memorable about BRdMC's was the Sugar Plum Fairy's role. The dancing in it had the sheen of pearls, especially when Alexandra Danilova did the part. Tatiana Grantzeva also had about her a warm glow and graciousness. By the time I saw the production in the mid-1940s, however, it had been toured all over North America season upon season and wasn't particularly impressive as either storytelling or sustained choreography, coming across more as a collection of numbers.

Ashton remade Nutcracker as a non-narrative divertissement in two scenes, Snow and Sweets, retaining and crediting some of the plum Ivanov. Premiered in London in 1951 as Casse Noisette, it was taken on the first SWTB tour of North America and impressed me as abstract sumptuousness. The dancers, in Cecil Beaton's costumes and sets, looked like lush flowers opening up. However, my ballet teacher in Chicago, Edna Lucille Baum, was exceptionally severe in her remark that what Ashton had done wasn't true to the Nutcracker. I remember going back and trying hard to see it as a misconception, but my liking won out.

New York City Ballet's The Nutcracker by George Balanchine was my first experience of the long version. Balanchine initially kept much of Ivanov's partnered adagio for the ballerina as Sugar Plum Fairy in Act 2, but after a season or so replaced it with choreography of his own. I fell in love with Act 1, the realistic Christmas party scene. As long as Balanchine oversaw it, the manners and mood were a perfect balance between spontaneity and formality of behavior and between a light Biedermeier air and a more somber, weightier, late Romantic tone. As suggested by the critic Gunhild Oberzaucher-Schüller, it was Act 1 that may have been as close to the 1892 original as the latter 20th Century could get. Also actual Ivanov (this came from the lips of Balanchine according to photographer Costas) is the mime passage in NYCB's Act 2 when the young Nutcracker Prince tells of his battle with the Mouse King. Since Balanchine's death, NYCB's Act 1 has changed an inch a season, but changed nonetheless, becoming brusque and even a bit rude.

Lots of other long, more-or-less traditional Nutcracker stagings have been unavoidable over the years. Mary Day and Martin Buckner's for the Washington Ballet often had an Act 1 that was as fresh as the first party before Christmas. In the Joffrey Ballet's production, the dance for the adults at the Act 1 party has real verve; it was staged by George Verdak after Fedorova. Scholars haven't found it easy to decipher what is original and what has come to seem original over the years. According to Roland John Wiley, the doll dances in Act 1 were probably by Marius Petipa and not Ivanov, and the Spanish dance by Alexander Shiryaev. It has been suggested that Fedorova based her staging not just on Ivanov but also incorporated Michel Fokine ideas. Is anything left of Ivanov's snow scene? Where did the Snow Queen and King in Ballet Russe versions come from? My favorite snows are Vassily Vainonen's skaterly one and Balanchine' s that is like Belgian lace. Both are choreography for the corps de ballet without lead dancers. Ruth Page's Snowflakes in Chicago wore big tutus and on their heads there were emanations of small snowballs copied from the 1892 designs. Despite the many differences from production to production, there are two categories of Nutcracker, conventional and rebel.

The first aternative I saw was probably in the 1960s and it is still my favorite rebel version. Sally Bowden, a young downtown New York dancer in the immediate wake of the Judson Church revolution, staged Nutcracker as a solo for herself. Made up as an old woman, she put on a kettle for tea and a phonograph recording of Tchaikovsky's music, then settled down in a rocking chair to reminisce. I don't remember the dancing, whether there was much or little, but Bowden focused her audience on the music, the passage of time and the vast world that exists even in one humble human's mind.

The Kirov's Nutcracker is rebel, and for Russia that is novel (Fedor Lopukhov's version having been forgotten) even though it isn't for us. It starts, however, with Tchaikovsky's familiar music which was as finely etched as frostflowers on the windowpane and as clear as sleighbells drawing near. The entire score sounded glorious under Mikhail Argrest's baton in the crisp yet never harsh acoustics of the re-engineered KC Opera House. When the curtain rose to show painter Mihail Chemiakin's sets and costumes, and reveal his concept, there was much food for thought. Kirill Simonov's choreography seldom strayed far from Chemiakin's idea that Nutcracker is really a danse macabre.

The physical world on stage in Act 1 is bizarre and the creatures in it are grotesque, annoying, even nauseating. Think of Hieronymus Bosch's canvases brought forward in time with Victorian accretions like the portrait in Portrait of Dorian Gray and post-World War 2 splicings from Antonioni's on-screen images. Among the adults are a ghoulish, gagging Drosselmayer and a Cardinal with molesting hands. Drosselmayer, of course, represents the author and is the character who makes the action happen. Why in this version he has to have a religious henchman seems related to recent Church "scandals" more than to necessity. The ballet's child heroine, Masha, is a brat and her brother Fritz, a brute. Masha's movement leitmotif is slouching. The Snowflakes near the end of Act 1 wear something akin to the 1892 costumes but in black—a news item on the very morning of the Washington opening told of the world's snowflakes becoming darker because of more soot in the atmosphere that they incorporate.

No question that this gargoyle staging is elaborately produced by the Kirov.Technically the stagecraft is of a high order although Vladimir Lukasevich's lighting didn't always seem to optimize the implied visual effects. In Act 1, Simonov's choreography succeeds in making the elegant Kirov dancers look inelegant. His dances are structurally competent although a bit stodgy, and one soon tired of the characters' movement motifs. The best dance, because it didn't just illustrate Chemiakin's ideas but had a vitality of its own, was the solo for the military doll (Anton Pimonov as The Recruit). The Snowflakes seemed earthbound rather than wind-driven.

Act 2 is a little more normal. Simonov is allowed to let some of the Kirov elegance show and he takes a few degrees of freedom for choreographic design and development. At his best, in the big pas de deux danced by Masha (Natalya Sologub) and the Nutcracker Prince (Andrey Merkuriev), Simonov shows a facility for making catches and lifts look astonishing. Moreover, he treats them as true dancing and not just trick work. Unfortunately, Merkuriev let Sologub slip in one of the most climactic drops. The Waltz of the Flowers was professionally academic, yet squarish. It hadn't the inventiveness of Vainonen's or Balanchine's versions. The Sugar Plum Fairy's part has been turned into a walking role but not one with any substance. She remains a cardboard figure.

What has Chemiakin achieved by distorting Nutcracker? A diversion from the usual, conventional version. Other Nutcracker deviants, such as Bernd Bienert's or Mark Morris's, may be stronger social satires than Chemiakin's but no other version I know is quite as frightening in its assertion of the triumph of death and emptyness of tradition. At the end of the ballet, Masha and her Prince are turned into icing on a cake. Someone will eat them, but if not they'll go stale. Like much else throughout this production, that theme goes against the grain of Tchaikovsky's music (which presumably sprang from the Dumas Sr. re-telling and not from the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story. By the way, the original story isn't a celebration of death nor a condemnation of tradition either, but something quite unique. Get a good translation and read all of it, not just the portions related to the ballet.)

To comment on the dancers hardly seems fair given their perverse assignments. In Act 1, Sologub's Masha was an apt minislut who displayed her high extensions provocatively and relished slouching. In Act 2, Sologub danced the pas de deux efficiently but didn't manage to make Masha likeable. The choreographer, Simonov, was the appropriately doltish Nutcracker in Act 1. Merkuriev, as the Nutcracker Prince in Act 2 , had the trappings of the grand manner. He seems a nervous dancer and something in his bearing suggests a metallic spring that's not fully flexible. Daria Pavlenko's Snowflakes Queen was heavy, but her serpentine Eastern Dance was a hit among the Act 2 divertissements. Anton Adassinsky's Drosselmayer and Vladimir Ponomaryov's Cardinal were expertly mimed. Many of Chemiakin's costumes took on a life of their own.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 14
December 29, 2003

©2003 George Jackson




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on December 29,, 2003