Nutcracker #3

Finally, on December 22, I rushed from work to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see the world "preview" premiere of Alexei Ratmansky's Nutcracker for the American Ballet Theatre. Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes are two of my favorite dancers and I was excited to see them too. I was very excited indeed to see what this talented choreographer would do with Tchaikovsky's score, and whether he'd adhere more to the Soviet traditions of making the Nutcracker about a girl's romance.

Two hours later, I left the theater with rather mixed feelings. Here were my initial impressions of the performance:

Act 1 - Stahlbaum House

The beginning was charming -- it starts out in the kitchen, where the cooks and servants are preparing the Christmas feast. Hiding under the table is a mouse (all the mice in Ratmansky's production are albino mice who are wearing dapper gray jackets). The humans are horrified by the mouse, and a a game of "catch the mouse" begins although the humans end up fleeing the kitchen. Then the mice really take over, and start grabbing at the food around the kitchen. It's a quirky, but very charming introduction.

The party scene was different. It started with a group of noticeably older children rushing onstage and performing a collective "temper tantrum" dance as they demand to get their presents. They stomp and shake their fists and shove each other till they get what they want. Gone is the charming dance of Balanchine's children (where Fritz is stiffed a partner and ends up dancing with the mom). Ratmansky's kids are brats, and they behave badly throughout the party scene -- shoving each other, grabbing each other's presents, throwing temper tantrums when they don't get immediate gratification. It's realistic, but I think it was meant to be funny but ended up being a bit uncomfortable. Clara (Athena Petrizzo) was really very charming though, if unusually serious.

Drosselmeyer arrives with a huge live Nutcracker doll (throughout the ballet the Nutcracker doll switches back and forth between being a small wooden toy and a life-size dancing doll), and Harlequin and Columbine and another dancing pair called Recruit and Canteen Keeper. Harlequin (Craig Salstein) and Harlequin (Gemma Bond) gave two of the best performances of the night, while Luis Ribagorda and Meaghan Hinkis were not as sharp as the Recruit and Canteen Keeper. Another fight breaks out over the Nutcracker Doll as Fritz seems to break the Dancing Nutcracker, and a heartbroken Clara (a wonderful Athena Petrizzo) drags the Dancing Nutcracker back to the couch. There's a quick change and Clara is now holding the small wooden Nutcracker. During this time the adults are in the background drinking and the party ends with the adults quite drunk.

Magic Time. There's no real growing tree (no trap door I guess), so the smaller tree is simply slid offstage while a big large tree is slid onstage. The large tree however looks like a green curtainish thing, and so the effect wasn't very magical. OTOH Ratmansky's choreography for the mice and soldiers was among the best I've seen. The mice are more comical than scary, and they march along pretentiously, drawing laughs from the audience. Clara the whole time is seated in a huge chair and she looks at the scene below and finally throws the shoe. The largeness of her chair is surreal and I think it is a nice transition on Ratmansky's part to indicate this is clearly a dream now.

Transformation Pas de Deux -- the Nutcracker Prince (Philip Perez) and Clara hold hands and out pop dream Clara and dream Prince, Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes. Part and Gomes are in glittery silvery tutus, and for awhile little Clara and the little Prince mimic Part and Gomes in some waltzing moments. Then little Clara and little Prince sit downstage, holding hands, as Part and Gomes dance a showing pas de deux that features some tricky lifts which looked underrehearsed and I think require a lightness that is not part of Part's arsenal. Part also had trouble with some supported pirouettes. Then dream Clara and dream Prince leave.

Now the snow scene. This is an idea that I think was good on paper but worked less well onstage. At first the snowflakes seem like visions, in soft blue romantic tutus and crowns (think Balanchine without the wands), and we think we're in winter wonderland. However as the music speeds up the snowflakes become sinister. They pull apart Clara and the Prince repeatedly and act almost like Wilis as they surround Clara and the Prince in two separate circles and seem to want to strangle them. There's not really enough snow to create what I think was the intended effect -- a vicious blizzard. There's hardly any snow falling at all, in fact. Finally Drosselmeyer comes onstage with a sled, and rescues poor Clara and the Prince. The Snowflakes lose their power (again, Wili-like) and end the act all prostrate onstage, very defeated. I have to say I enjoy the "Winter Wonderland" depiction of the Snowflakes much more than Ratmansky's rather sinister take.

Act 2 - Land of the Sweets

Well it's not so much Land of the Sweets as Land of the ... Indian Sweets? The Sugar Plum Fairy (who doubles as the Nanny in Act 1) is a pure mime role, and she's not dressed in the usual pink. Rather she's wearing a fancy turban and a fluffy looking Bayadere-like dress. Zhong-Jing Fang is the SPF. She's accompanied by a Major Domo who's dressed like a Rajah. The decor for Act 2 is rather bare, suggests a gilded palace with lots of tiny gold columns in the background and green benches.

Little Clara and Little Prince are introduced to the SPF and her Majordomo, and thankfully Ratmansky includes the mime sequence for the little Prince. The SPF introduces her kingdom.

The national dances were I thought the most interesting part of the show. The Spanish dance was pretty typical, looks a lot like Balanchine's Chocolate Dance, with the three couples. But the Arabian was very different. I usually find this variation boring, but Ratmansky introduced a mini-story. Sascha Radetsky is a bald shiek type, very misogynistic, and at first it seems as if he's trying to dominate his four women, as one would do in a harem. He drags them around onstage and makes them lie down as if he's going to literally pluck one for his choosing. But the four women of the harem turn things around and revolt, and by the end of the dance he's the one left all alone as the women smugly link hands and walk offstage.

The Chinese dance also introduced a story. At first the relationship between the two dancers seemed full of conflict, but as the short dance progresses they reconcile and end the dance in a sweet lovey dovey embrace. The Marzipan dance has the Nutcracker's five "sisters" dancing. I had no idea they were the Nutcracker's sisters until I saw the program, and they contained 5 of ABT's best soloists, but the choreography wasn't that memorable. Russian dance has three guys dressed like candy canes and the theme of this dance is the guys don't quite know how to dance -- they bump into each other, stumble, and end the dance on the floor, a total mess. I don't know if Ratmansky is subtly mocking the famously accident-prone Balanchine candy canes, who I've seen stumble over their hoops and fall more than a few times. Finally Mother Ginger has a little mouse along with the 7 little children, and in the end Mother Ginger is only able to get the cute little mouse back into her skirts.

The Waltz of the Flowers introduces another concept. The women are dressed in long multilayered tutus with each layer being a different shade of pink (much like Balanchine's) but Ratmansky also introduces four bees that swarm around the flowers during the whole dance. It was again an interesting concept, but I have a serious allergy to bees so I think maybe I didn't appreciate the concept as much as I should have. But also, I think the choreography for the Waltz of the Flowers was a bit muddled -- the bees popped in and out, but there was no relationship established between the flowers and the bees.

Finally, the Grand Pas de Deux. During the whole second act little Clara and little Prince have been sitting and watching the dances, but the scene changes, and out come Dream Clara and Dream Prince. Little Clara and Little Prince finally go offstage as Part and Gomes dance their big pas de deux. They look like a dream couple, in glittery tutus, a tiara for Part, and a shiny silver suit for Gomes. But their dancing contained some awkwardness. The pas de deux contains lots of very swoony Romeo and Juliet-like lifts that again, are awkward for a dancer as tall as Part. It might work better on smaller, lighter dancers. There's no shoulder-jump lifts, but the climactic lift is one that echoes the Grigorivich production. The Prince lifts Clara as Clara is completely upright, over his head. Big applause, and for once the grandeur of Part's dancing seemed appropriate for this big lift. There's a weird section where Part all of a sudden collapses in heaving tears, and Gomes comforts her. I say weird because in the coda, their pas de deux becomes almost comical and playful, so I don't know what the sudden bursting of tears accomplished. Pas de deux ends in a fishdive, Balanchine style.

The variation for Gomes contains a lot of Bournonville-like petit allegro steps that are not Gomes' forte, and he seemed to tire visibly. He started flailing his arms, his form suffered, and for once this danseur noble seemed sloppy and out of sorts. The variation for Clara, on the other hand, contained none of the usual twinkly releves and little hops that usually characterize this variation. Or maybe Part just didn't perform them. I have to say, I was disappointed by Part in this variation. She seemed not to hear the music at all, and was uncomfortable with the small, fast, twinkly music. She preferred to do a series of big jumps that showed her elevation and ballon but I just got the weird feeling that she was either making things up as she was going along, or that she wasn't really articulating the choreography well.

The finale has the usual reprise by all the Act 2 members, but the choreography is rather static and ruined by a Vegas-style wedding between Dream Clara and Dream Prince, replete with the short bridal veil.

As the finale ends, little Clara is pushed onstage on a bed as the dream characters disappear. She wakes up with Gomes on one side and Little Prince on the other, and as she reaches out for them, they too disappear. She collapses on her bed in another fit of tears, until magically the little wooden Nutcracker appears on her bed (Drosselmeyer is watching from the window). Curtain.


Final thoughts:

The Ratmansky Nutcracker is choreographed for an American company and American audiences who are likely to be more familiar with the Balanchine version of Nutcracker. And so there are concessions to make this Nutcracker less about romance and more about kids – there are kids dancing in the party scene, Clara and her Prince are danced by children as well, and the mice are used prominently for comic purposes. Mother Ginger is back, this time with a cute little mouse that creeps out of her skirts.

His Nutcracker, however, in basic outline and structure is more Vainonen than Balanchine. The party scene is rather serious, with the children behaving like screaming brats and the adults seeming either distant or drunk. Clara’s dream is also a disturbing place – Ratmansky’s major “dark touch” is his use of the Snowflakes – they are dressed in soft romantic tutus but they soon become sinister and Wili-like in their determination to separate the young Clara and Prince. They surround the two in circles. Just as Clara and the Prince seem on the verge of being engulfed in the blizzard, Drosselmeyer comes to the rescue in a sled. Most importantly, Little Clara and Little Prince are doubled throughout the ballet by Dream Clara and Dream Prince, who are prima ballerinas and danseurs. The Sugar Plum Fairy is reduced to a pure mime role, and she doesn’t look like a fairy so much as a weirdly turbaned character about of Arabian Nights. Plus, the second act is not about Clara and the Prince’s journey to the Kingdom of the Sweets so much as it is about them falling in Love. The Grand Pas de Deux is filled with swoony, Romeo-and-Juliet like lifts, and the climax of the pas de deux is the Grigorovich lift. In the coda, dream Clara is fitted with a short, cheesy-looking veil and there’s a Vegas-style wedding ceremony performed onstage. This Nutcracker too ends with the “it was all a dream” scene. 

Ratmansky can tweak certain things about his Nutcracker, even great ballets require a rethinking, retweaking, of what works and what doesn't, but overall I was disappointed with the evening and perhaps next year, more rehearsal time, some revisions, and a different cast will make this Nut more appealing. As of now, Mr. B's Nut is still my favorite.


Popular posts from this blog

Will the Real Apollo Please Stand Up?

NYCB Waves Goodbye ... and Says Welcome Back

"Fire Shut Up in My Bones" Reopens Met