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The DanceView Times, New York edition

A Whirlwind Nutcracker

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker®
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
November 28, 2003

by Eric Taub
copyright © 2003 by Eric Taub

I was going to start this review by noting that there are two long-awaited moments in the first Nutcracker of the year which invariably bring a smile of joy to my lips: the first sight of Rouben Ter-Arutunian's curtain, with its airborne angel, and, even more, the appearance of the first Snowflake, who seems to be saying it's finally time for the real dancing to start. Then I realized I'd have to add the growing Christmas tree, poor Fritz rescued from being a wallflower by his mother in the party scene, Dewdrop, Candy Canes, and most of the ballet. So much for a brief, witty, lead; there are too many cherished, familiar moments to single out two, or even a handful.

Aside from the satisfaction of seeing the return of the snowflakes of yesteryear and the like, this was not a Nutcracker for the ages, as the recurring theme was not so much Balanchine's (and Tchaikovsky's and Ivanov's) evocation of the uses of fantasy in helping children mature into adults, but how well, or poorly, the dancers managed to keep up with what proved, unfortunately, to be a vintage performance by the conductor, Andrea Quinn, who seemed to have regressed to her early days at the helm of the City Ballet orchestra, where her enthusiasm would overcome her better judgment, and too many ballets were ruined by her ever-accelerating tempi. It's true Balanchine was fond of speed, but I doubt he'd have enjoyed the sight of dancers struggling to keep up with pace which barely allowed them, let alone the choreography, to breathe. I was actually very impressed with how well the dancers kept up with Ms. Quinn's Wild Ride, but I'd have preferred to see them succeed with the aid of the conductor rather than in spite of her.

In the first act's party scene, I admired how well-drilled the children appeared (this was a recurring theme for the evening), as well as the bright, re-done costumes. As usual, this scene lets one refute the oft-heard calumny that City Ballet dancers can't act. Just take a look at all the delightful stage business that goes on at the party, especially as hosted by Dena Arbergel's vivacious Mrs. Stahlbaum, and you'll have plenty of justification for replying, "Can too!" I hope it doesn't make me seem too churlish to have wished for a bit more from the lead children: more of Arbergel's exuberance from the beautiful peaches-and-cream blonde Marie of Flora Wilkes, and a bit more princeliness from the very enthusiastic Gregory Malek-Jones as Drosselmeier's nephew, aka the Nutcracker. Speaking of Drosselmeier, while Robert La Fosse is indeed a character dancer of great presence, someone should remind him that the party scene isn't entirely about Drosselmeier, and it's okay, even desirable, for him to fade into the background occasionally, such as at the big dance for the adults and children. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the wit of many of La Fosse's small touches, such as the discreet hit he takes from his snuffbox when he thinks nobody is watching. Other parts of the first act proceeded well enough, although I never remembered the mice being quite so airborne, and Wildes overcame a bit of difficulty removing her shoe before tossing it at the Mouse King, a delightfully hammy Henry Seth.

It was in the following Snowflakes scene that the theme of the rest of the evening, Dancers vs. Quinn, became apparent. Perhaps if this has been an orchestral recital, I'd have been able to enjoy the admittedly brilliant sound Quinn elicits from the orchestra, but the sight of dancer after dancer gamely struggling to keep up with her rapid tempi rather killed this pleasure (doesn't Quinn ever look up?). Despite this, the Snowflakes looked remarkably strong and together for an opening-night Nutcracker, but Quinn's tempo left them little opportunity to show any musicality other than a dogged ability to keep up with the beat.

After the rise of the curtain on Act II, and the ever-joyful dance of the little angels, another theme of the evening asserted itself, that Maria Kowroski was far from the top of her form. Unlike some Sugar Plum Fairies, Kowroski never forgets to interact with the angels in her solo, and certainly looks grand when given an opportunity to pose in her justly celebrated arabesque. However, in her solo Kowroski looked weak indeed, falling out of the first of the two tricky pirouettes from fifth, and not doing much better with the second. Here, clean singles would have been far more welcome than botched doubles. In the Pas de Deux, later in the act, Kowroski handled the balances in arabesque (travelling and otherwise) with great aplomb, but overall she reminded me of the way she'd danced four or five years ago, when she didn't have the strength to keep her hyperextended figure under control. Fortunately, her partner, Charles Askegard, had plenty of stamina for them both, and frequently had to muscle the reed-in-a-gale Kowroski from position to position. I particularly wanted to cheer Askegard for the brilliant way he salvaged what might have been a disaster when Kowroski accidentally turned the second of her dramatic leaps to sit on his shoulder into more of a chest sit. After the adagio, Askegard was visibly winded, and if his solo, which followed immediately, was perhaps not his finest, it was more than credible, especially under the circumstances.

In the Waltz of the Flowers, Sofiane Sylve, City Ballet's newest principal dancer, showed in her debut as Dewdrop that she has strength aplenty. And elevation. And technique. And presence. For most of her performance, she turned Dewdrop, a famously high-energy and difficult role, into a showpiece for technical excellence, uncovering nuances in the choreography I'd never noticed. I could cite her amazing fouettés, in which she started each turn by swinging her leg to a clean, and momentarily held, second; or her ronde de jambes en l'air sauté, where her working foot didn't seem to unfurl until her standing foot was about a yard off the stage; her attitude turns in which she seemed to change position three times; or the remarkable denouement of her pirouette/arabesque combination in the ballet's finale, in which she turned more and more slowly, majestically unfurling her final arabesque. There were moments when she seemed a bit taken aback by Quinn's speed, as Sylve, big, strong and powerful, is not a quicksilver, Balanchinian, no-preparation kind of dancer. She had to rush through the big saute de chats, finishing the last with leap into a clearly surprised Pascale van Kipnis. I'm sure subsequent performances will show some improvement in Sylve's blocking, as well as an understanding that Dewdrop is not only about strength and power, but sweetness and light as well, and so she doesn't need always to use her arms quite so forcefully.

In the other divertissment roles, Rachel Rutherford and Arch Higgins were both playful and haughty Spaniards in the often-thankless Hot Chocolate dance. Dana Hanson seems to own the sexy Coffee, although given her rather unvoluptuous style, I can't understand why. Daniel Ulbricht was the highest-flying Tea I've ever seen, and more power to him. Tom Gold strove mightily in Candy Canes, but the rapid pace simply didn't give him enough time to unfurl properly in his biggest jumps. Similarly, Carrie Lee Riggins in the very tricky Marzipan Shepherdesses managed to keep up with Quinn, but there were moments when she was clearly struggling. A more-moderate tempo would've given Riggins a chance to show off some of the wit and musicality she showed at the end of last season. Finally, I'd like to thank Jonathan Stafford for not taking our attention away from the nicely drilled Polichinelles by turning his Mother Ginger into the sort of Divine-meets-Harvey-Fierstein horror with which we've become all too familiar in recent years.

Photo:  The Waltz of the Flowers.  Dewdrop:  Sofiane Sylve. Photo:  Paul Kolnik.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 10
December 1, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Eric Taub



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

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

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last updated on October 24, 2003