Children are Stars in NYCB’s “The Nutcracker”

”The Nutcracker”
The New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts
New York, NY
November 22, 2006

by Gay Morris
copyright 2006 by Gay Morris

When George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” first made its appearance in 1954, New York Times critic John Martin said that it was about and for children, which he considered a fatal flaw. Balanchine would certainly have agreed that he focused “The Nutcracker” on children, and regardless of Martin’s assessment, time has proved the wisdom of his decision.

Balanchine remembered the enjoyment of performing in “The Nutcracker” as a child at the Imperial School. But the St. Petersburg production was not his only inspiration. He once mentioned in an interview how much of the magic of Christmas in Russia was wrapped up in its Germanic roots. It was a German holiday in all its details, from the lebkuchen decorating the Christmas tree to holiday cards of wintry tableaux. He recreated that German Christmas in the Stahlbaum’s home and in the fantasy scenes in forest and kingdom of sweets that followed.  Thomas Mann, in his family epic “Buddenbrooks,” describes a Christmas eve in a bourgeois German household that could have served as a model for the prologue to Balanchine’s ballet. Like the Stahlbaum children, Mann’s little boy waits while Christmas preparations go on behind closed doors. “It was Christmas,” he writes. “The scent of fir found its way through cracks of the high, white-enameled folding doors, which were still closed tight; and the sweet spicy odor called up in his mind a picture of the dining room and the wonders inside—an unbelievable, unearthly splendor for which he waited each year with a pounding heart.”

Like Mann, Balanchine captured the excitement and sense of dream-like magic that is so much a part of a child’s Christmas, and he allowed no aspect of adulthood to intrude on it for long. In contrast to many recent productions, his ballet is not a metaphor for sexual awakening. All anxieties are children’s, and all pleasures. Heaven is, as any child will tell you, a land of sweets.

After half a century, New York City Ballet still manages to conjure the child’s fantasy Balanchine imagined. And this despite the Disneyfication of so much of today’s youthful entertainment. The work opened Friday evening for its annual series of performances at the New York State Theater. Everything was in place: the party, the amazing growth of the Christmas tree, the battle of mice and toy soldiers, the voyage through the snowstorm to Konfituerenburg where the Sugarplum Fairy rules. At the center, as it should be, were the children, Marie, Fritz, and the Nutcracker Prince. Clara Ruf-Maldonado, so pretty, and Ghaleb Kayali, so serene, were Marie and the Prince.  Sebastian Peskind was an adorably naughty Fritz. I don’t think I have ever seen a child have so much fun on stage as did young Peskind.

As for the adults in the cast, Wendy Whelan was a radiant Sugar Plum Fairy partnered by Nikolaj Hübbe. Hübbe used to be an arrogant virtuoso, somewhat in the style of his Danish compatriot, Peter Martins. As he has aged and his technical facility has declined, cold display has been replaced by a new human warmth, and he is a far more interesting dancer. He proved an ardent partner for Whelan, who is the company’s undisputed leading ballerina. Technical difficulties never seem to phase her, and here she executed the long balances in the pas de deux with lightness and ease. Yet she is not what one ordinarily thinks of as a technical dancer. I think the reason is because she subsumes technique into a larger vision of what a dance should be, and it is that intelligent whole that is on display.  

Sofiane Sylve shared the adult limelight as the Dewdrop in the Waltz of the Flowers. She is an exotic beauty who has always projected French feminine self-confidence. Here she looked particularly free and happy in some of the ballet’s most filigreed choreography. Of the second act variations, Sterling Hyltin was memorable for glittering footwork and sophistication in the dance of the Marzipan Shepherdesses. Daniel Ulbricht and Tom Gold jumped like steeplechasers as the leaders in Tea and Candy Canes, respectively, and Teresa Reichlen was properly sultry as Arabian Coffee. Robert La Fosse has long turned the role of Herr Drosselmeier into a small work of art.

Still, though, it was the children, more than fifty in all, who ultimately made the deepest impression. So much is expected of them in the first act party scene and they didn’t put a foot wrong. Then there were the mice and soldiers, the angels in the second act, the polichinelles who hide in Mother Ginger’s skirt, and the little candy canes. They were all splendid. And we must not forget the children in the audience. They also played their part to perfection. Not a cough, not a whisper, was to be heard, although there was much clapping and not a few sighs of pleasure. They could have taught something to the other audiences who are in attendance most of the year at the theaters of Lincoln Center.

Photos, both by Paul Kolnik:
The children and Mother Ginger.
Wendy Whelan, as The Sugar Plum Fairy.

Volume 4, No. 42
November 27, 2006

copyright ©2006 Gay Morris



©2006 DanceView