Nutcracker magic

Every year I splurge once for a NYCB Nutcracker performance. Balanchine's nostalgic recreation of the ballet he danced as a child in the Imperial School of Ballet remains the sweetest, richest, and best choreographed version of the ballet in existence. No matter how many times I watch this ballet, there's always a new detail that touches me as particularly beautiful and tender. In this case, I noticed the delightfully comic treatment of the mice by Balanchine. They're not just enemies of the soldiers -- most of them are just followers, sitting bleacher style watching the fight. When they drag off their mouse king I even felt bad for them.

The opening party scene has the least amount of dancing but is so rich with little details of a happy Christmas party that I never get tired of watching. The children from the SAB were as usual superb. Claire Abraham as Marie and Maximillian Landegger as the Prince were young, but full of feeling. Landegger's famous mime about how he vanquished the mice predictably drew a huge round of applause. The Drosselmeyer David Prottas was more low-key than most. Justin Peck and Gwyneth Muller were believable as loving parents.

The NYCB is blessed right now to have a very deep, talented roster of dancers that can put on these marathon Nuts without looking sloppy and exhausted (although I am sure they are). I am impressed with how well the corps de ballet is holding up. The Snowflake scene remains without peer -- the frantic formations of the blue crowned snowflakes with their snow wands resembles a heightening blizzard, and the falling snow just accentuates this beautiful scena. But perhaps the sweetest part is the end -- the blizzard has ended, the snowflakes have gone, and it's just the Prince and Marie walking through the forest, hand in hand.

The solo variations in the second act were the only slightly weak part of the evening. None of the were bad, but I've seen all the variations danced with more pizzazz than was the case this afternoon. Giovanni Villalobos didn't have the explosive jumps to make the most out of the Tea variation. Sara Adams was professional but not eye-catching as the Marzipan shepherdess -- this role is usually given to upcoming corps de ballet members and I've seen them totally steal the show. Not today. Allen Pfeiffer was perhaps the best with the Candy Canes, and Georgina Pazcoguin used her long limbs to create a sinewy Coffee. Of course Mother Ginger and the candy cane kids were delightful.

The leads were wonderful. Tiler Peck had everything needed to be a Sugar Plum Fairy -- graciousness, beauty, and just a touch of aloofness that reminds the kingdom that she is, after all, a fairy. Her Sugar Plum Variation was tossed off with the right mix of benevolence and mischief, and nothing technical ever seems to hold any terrors for Peck. Her technique is perhaps the best the company has right now (Ashley Bouder is neck-and-neck).  Robert Fairchild partnered her consciously so the balances, promenades, lunges, and jump-to-shoulder lifts were tossed off without a hitch. Fairchild himself seemed to be having a sluggish day. His turns a la seconde in the coda were slow and labored.

Sterling Hyltin gave a standout performance as the Dewdrop. It's a brief but delightful part -- she flits around the waltzing flowers just like a dewdrop would, all the while executing some of the trickiest allegro steps Balanchine devised. It's typically given to the whizbang allegros of the company (Ashley Bouder is a famous Dewdrop). Hyltin isn't quite in that category yet but her performance was a delight. Fast, fun, charming, all the petit allegro steps executed with verve. In the past I've thought that Hyltin was one of those dancers who coasted a bit on charm but these past seasons have really seen an improvement both in her technique and her acting ability. She's changed from a dancer I liked to a dancer I love.

But the overall feeling whenever I watch Balanchine's Nutcracker is not of one dancer in particular. I think of love. Balanchine choreographed this with so much love and care that almost 60 years later, it's charms both the hardened balletomanes and the young children who are taken to the ballet for the first time.


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