Comparing Nutcrackers Across the Pond

Battle of the Nutcrackers: U.S. vs. England

This December season I had my usual annual ritual of putting aside money for two extremely crucial things -- a Christmas bonus for my building super and money on Nutcracker tickets. NYCB's Nutcracker is my annual Christmas binge -- every year I check out some new dancers, and see my old favorites. This year I saw four different SPF/Cavalier pairings. Truth be told, only one was the kind of transcendent, joyful complete performance that made me leave the theater on a high. The others all had some major flaws. But still, for the joy it brings me year after year, Balanchine's Nutcracker is unrivaled.

Balanchine's classic version
However this year I also decided to sample a Nutcracker cinema relay from across the pond -- Sir Peter Wright's Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet. The Wright Nutcracker this year starred Gary Avis as Drosselmeyer, Anne Rose O'Sullivan and Marcellino Sambé as Clara and Nutcracker Prince, and Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier. So who won the battle?


Both Balanchine and Wright are obviously working from the same choreographic and narrative text -- the original 1982 Ivanov production. Neither of them have added anything "weird" to the story.  Twas the night before Christmas and at a Christmas party a magician named Drosselmeyer gives his favorite niece Clara/Marie (Balanchine calls her Marie, probably because in Russia she was called "Masha") a toy Nutcracker. Her mischievous brother Fritz breaks it. Clara/Marie has a dream that her Nutcracker comes to life and becomes a Prince helps her battle an army of mice. Marie finally wins the battle after throwing a shoe att the Mouse King. After the mice are vanquished Clare/Marie and the Prince head to the Land of the Sweets where they entertained by the Sugarplum Fairy and watch an array of divertissement dances. The end.



Mark Morris's The Hard Nut
As you can tell there's not much story to the ballet at all and over the years choreographers have tried to beef up the narrative.The Nureyev ballet made the Nutcracker Prince a creepy double of Drosselmeyer. Mark Morris's The Hard Nut made the Stahlbaum party a drunken dysfunctional affair and added a story within E.T.A. Hoffman's novel in which Drosselmeyer's nephew is turned into a Nutcracker and Princess Pirlipat is cursed into an ugly pig-faced baby and Drosselmeyer has to travel the world and break the spell. The Soviet versions erased the Sugarplum Fairy character and have Clara/Marie and the Prince fall in love and marry in the second act. Sir Peter Wright adds a bit more storyline too -- Drosselmeyer's nephew Hans-Peter is imprisoned inside the Nutcracker doll and the ballet ends with (SPOILERS) Drosselmeyer's nephew returning in human form as the spell is broken.

Sir Peter Wright has altered his Nutcracker considerably since his first stab at the work over thirty years ago. There exists a 1985 video from Covent Garden that shows Wright's first thoughts on the work.  But it's 2018, and Wright's Nutcracker is almost unrecognizable from what it was 30+ years ago. For instance, in 1984 the Stahlbaum party was still a reasonable (if expensive) house party. It is now a party maybe only Buckingham Palace can afford. The costumes have gotten grander, the living room is now palatial, and Drosselmeyer's cape also expands every year. This is in contrast to Balanchine's Nutcracker, where the party takes place in an upper middle class home with servants but one that is not stuffy.

As one example compare Drosselmeyer's dolls. In Balanchine's version they are in these tiny wrapped boxes that look like actual Christmas presents that can fit under a tree. In the Royal Ballet version the "boxes" are as tall as the dancers. Also note that Balanchine's choreography is much simpler: the chief distinguishing factor is the mechanical arm movements of the dolls.

 

But it wasn't always so. In 1985 the dolls emerged from these cute cabbage toys. Maybe a nod to the cabbage-batch kids that were the rage in the 1980's?

1985 cabbages where the dolls emerged
Another big difference is that in Balanchine's version, all the "child" roles are played by actual children of the School of American Ballet. This limits the amount of dancing they can actually do, but there is a certain joy in watching kids perform with such relish. It's one of the ironies of Nutcrackers that Balanchine the king of abstract dance has a Nutcracker filled with so many memorable non-dancing moments. This year one of the Nutcracker princes Athan Sporek was a natural scene stealer with beautiful feet and a winning stage personality. He got huge applause for simply coming downstage with the Mouse King's crown and tendu'ing to the crowd, and even bigger applause for the mime sequence in the second act. The way he relived the battle of the mice was clearer, more articulated, and livelier than I've seen it in ... a long time.

Here is Athan Sporek ripping off his mask, another moment that gets big applause without much actual dance:


O'Sullivan and Sambe
The Royal Ballet version has children from White Lodge playing in the party scene, but the roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince are given to young artists of the company. This is both good and bad -- this year Clara and the Prince were none other than Anna Rose O'Sullivan and Marcellino Sambe, whose dancing had impressed me so much at the City Center Balanchine Festival. And they were wonderful dancers. Sambé is one of those dancers with natural springs in his legs. Everything he does is just higher, lighter, faster than anyone else. The negative is that at the party Clara is so much older than all the other "children" her age, and she's given an adult dancing party. Look at this picture: all the ribbons in the world can't mask that O'Sullivan is maybe a good 10 years older than all her "peers":

Clara (O'Sullivan) at the party
Here is Balanchine's Nutcracker. All the kids are actual kids, and Marie only stands out because of the red trim of her dress and the extra bows in her hair.
Balanchine's party scene


The first act is very different in other ways between the two versions although the stories are identical. Balanchine's Drosselmeyer is more of an eccentric rather than a "wow he cut someone in half" magician. I saw three different Drosselmeyers this year (Adam Henrickson, Robert La Fosse, and Harrison Coll) and all of them played up the doddery old uncle schtick. Gary Avis in the Royal Ballet version is more flamboyant and dare I say creepy? He waves a huge cape and every second there's a new magic trick. Balanchine interpolates a violin solo from The Sleeping Beauty to give Drosselmeyer an extra sequence when he checks up on the sleeping Marie and secretly fixes the broken Nutcracker, which adds to the feel of him being more like a cozy relative than mysterious magician.

Look at the differences in costumes. They tell quite the story:

Gary Avis. Behold the power of the cape
Robert La Fosse. Behold the power of the eyepatch
The mice too are different: Balanchine's mice are goofy and the funniest part of the first act. They position themselves as if they were sitting in bleachers and cheer for their Mouse King like Alabama football fans would cheer in the Iron Bowl. Wright's mice are considerably more aristocratic, dressed in proper suits and tails. One way the two versions are similar is the growing tree. They both grow out of a trap door and take over the stage. Balanchine once commented that "the tree is the ballerina."
Balanchine's mice. They look cute


Royal Ballet mice. Note the smart black shoes and tailored pants

The other result of having adults dance the principal "child" roles is that over the years Peter Wright has given more and more dancing to Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. In 2018, they dance non-stop -- they are given a pas de deux in the transformation scene (Balanchine simply has Marie lying on a bed that travels through the wintry forest), they dance with the snowflakes, and they dance with nearly all the national dance divertissements in Act Two. It has become a virtuoso dancing opportunity especially for the Nutcracker Prince, and as a result the little moments that go for so much with Balanchine's kids go for very little here -- in Act Two Marcellino Sambé also did the exact same mime about vanquishing the Mouse King, but we'd already seen him dance so much the mime was like a distraction. And of course now the mime sequence is rounded off by a manège of grande jetes.

Here is Alexander Campbell in the mime sequence:



Here is Athan Sporek. As you can see, the mime sequence has more impact when a little kid does it:



Another example: the "Dance of the Flutes" variation (also called the Shepherdess variation). In the Royal Ballet version, Clara is the main dancer. This is good if you love the ballerina dancing Clara. However in other versions of the Nutcracker these variations are often (rightly) given as opportunities for up-and-coming or senior soloists.

Here is the Royal Ballet with Clara as the main dancer:
In the Balanchine version the "Marzipan" dance is an extremely difficult variation and this year I saw five different Marzipans and only Indiana Woodward was able to clear all the hurdles of the variation with complete aplomb.

Here is Tiler Peck in this variation:


The good thing is when you have a great team of Clara/Prince it can be a joy to watch them, well, dance. Here are O'Sullivan and Sambé in the Transformation pas de deux. They are as you can see magnificent dancers and really, I could watch them all day dance anything.



In general the Wright national dances/divertissements are fairly weak.  He cuts one of the most charming pieces (the Mother Ginger variation), and his other national dances are more dutiful than entertaining. As I've said the Prince and Clara intrude upon the dances more and more every year.

Balanchine's divertissements are also uneven. I've never seen a remotely interesting Hot Chocolate (Spanish dance).  Balanchine himself changed the Coffee (Arabian) variation over the years: at first it was a somewhat campy solo that included a shirtless male smoking a hookah. Later on it became a female solo that was for the "daddies" in the audience. His Coffee needs a really sensual, sexy dancer to do it justice -- this year, of the different Coffees I saw only Georgina Pazcoguin was able to revel in the sultriness of this dance. The others just looked like they were prancing around ringing their bells.

Here is old Arabian vs. New Arabian. The Coffee in the second video is Wendy Whelan, who is sexy:



Balanchine's Mother Ginger is a delight, and often a chance for both SAB students and a junior corps member (dressed up as a woman in stilts) to shine. This year Alec Knight as Mother Ginger got huge laughs for his outrageously over-the-top Mother Ginger (at one point he started shimmying to the music, at another he pretended to answer a cell phone).

Here is the Mother Ginger variation that is cut from Wright's version:



The one dance where Wright's is superior is the Chinese dance. Wright manages to include some cool acrobatic choreography WITHOUT indulging in many of the Oriental stereotypes that Balanchine populated in his "Tea" dance. Balanchine's "Tea" has undergone a transformation -- gone are the fingers, the black wigs, but what is left is now generic and even dull. A NYTimes article goes in depth about the changes made to Balanchine's Tea choreography.

Balanchine has one divertissement that is 100% a copy of the 1892 production, and never fails to get people screaming. It's the famous "Candy Cane" variation in which a male jumps through a hoop numerous times. I've seen this variation countless times and the 12 jumps through the hoop with the final double jump is like a dog whistle. This year I was fortunate enough to see both Daniel Ulbricht and Anthony Huxley as the Candy Canes and they are currently the gold standards for this variation.

Here is a comparison of the 1892 notation with Balanchine's:



The three main choreographic set-pieces for the Nutcracker are of course the Waltz of the Snowflakes, the Waltz of the Flowers, and the Grand Pas de Deux. Needless to say I prefer the Balanchine versions of the Waltz of the Snowflakes and Waltz of the Flowers simply because I believe that they are among his best choreography ever. Yes that includes holding it up against works like Apollo, Serenade, or Four Temperaments. The corps patterns he makes that weave in and out like a kaleidoscope are always themselves worth the price of admission.

The Balanchine snowflakes also give the corps an unmitigated chance to shine. Every year the snowflakes include new apprentices to the company and watching them grow more confident over a run is part of the Nutcracker tradition. Sir Peter Wright's version again (!!!) is overcome by Clara and Hans-Peter.

Balanchine. Watch the blizzard patterns the snowflakes make as well as the enchanting effect of the snow falling more precipitously as the music speeds up. The crowns and snow wands are a nice touch.



Wright's. In the 1985 version Clara and the Prince were fairly passive observers, and watched from a sled. Now they are a huge part of the whole snowflake dance.



The Waltz of the Flowers both have Wright and Balanchine adding a female solo part. In the Balanchine version she is the Dewdrop. The Dewdrop is a tricky role: she has to jump, she has to turn, she has to fouette, she has to weave in and out of the flowers with speed, power, and grace. Tiler Peck is the sui generis for me. I once saw a Dewdrop who looked so stunningly beautiful in the Karinska costume that the whole audience sighed just looking at her entrance. It wasn't until midway through the Waltz of the Flowers that I realized that behind her super-model good looks was a dancer that could neither jump nor turn.

Here is Ashley Bouder who has made the Dewdrop a specialty role of hers. Watch how the 3/4  rhythm causes Balanchine to make some of his most asymetrical corps patterns. The flowers are always traveling opposite of each other, working almost against the neat waltz melody.



Wright's has a "Rose Fairy" whose role among the flowers is considerably more static. Her choreography seems like a mish-mash of the Lilac Fairy and Aurora, and over the many years I've watched her and can't for the life of me figure out why she's there. Of course Clara pops in at the end as well! And the corps choreography adheres to the neatness of the 3/4 waltz. Straight lines, very proper, very ballroom.

About the grand pas de deux both Balanchine and Wright changed their versions several times. Both
of them are based on the same choreographic text: the 1892 Ivanov. Wright's in 1984 made a conscious effort to return to the 1892 Ivanov notations. He even included a trick that comes near the end of the Sugarplum Fairy/Cavalier Grand pas de deux -- the Sugarplum Fairy slides across the floor on a scarf.

You can see the original photo here:


Sir Peter Wright's 1985 version. The effect is at 4:45 in the video:




Anthony Dowell and Leslie Collier - PDD from 'The Nutcracker' from Alex de Ravin on Vimeo.

Balanchine took bits and pieces of the Ivanov and altered, changed, and of course made the whole thing more off-balance and then on-balance. He also borrowed liberally from Sleeping Beauty: his SPF has to end the pas de deux with a promenade to unsupported balance (Rose Adagio!) and then fishdive (Wedding pas de deux!).  This pas de deux is a minefield with 13 famous hazard points where mistakes are sudden and noticeable even to novice watchers. Maybe his most infamous addition was adding the sequence of pique-turn-to-arabesque-to-penchee-lunge (at 1:36 in the video below) where I have seen the strongest dancers come to grief. He also deleted the Cavalier's variation, and put the Sugarplum Fairy variation at the very beginning of the second act. However it wasn't always so. Here are what appear to be his earliest thoughts on the pas de deux and they do include the Cavalier variation as well as the SPF celesta variation after the grand pas de deux.



The final version of Balanchine's Nutcracker has the celesta variation in the beginning of the second act. The Sugarplum Fairy's dance is one of authority: she is establishing that this is her realm, her land. This opening variation is brief but crucial: the Sugarplum Fairy has to be the kind of creature kids would want to meet.
When I saw Marianela Nuñez perform the Sugarplum Fairy in Wright's version I immediately thought that she had exactly the right mix of warmth and authority for the role.  If you compare the Sugarplum Fairy variation between the two versions the first half is almost identical. The second half differs: Balanchine has the SPF do a sequence of par terre allegro footwork, while Ivanov has the SPF complete the difficult gargouillades.

Wright with Nuñez as SPF:



Balanchine with Megan Fairchild as SPF:

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Who wore it better?
As for Wright's Grand pas de deux in the 2018 form, the team of Nuñez/Muntagirov are wonderful dancers. Despite this I have a major problem with the presentation of the Grand pas. The way the music is played is too slow and without a pulse: it does not rise to the climaxes that Tchaikovsky built into the score. The costumes are overly bright and too close to the shade of the dancers' tights to allow for a clear view of the body line. And I've mentioned this before, but the frosted powdered wigs and crown flatter no one. In fact they make the Cavalier look like Joffrey from Game of Thrones. Overall it looks overstuffed, a bit like those British royal weddings where all the ladies are wearing sky-high fascinators when they's look much prettier with simpler hats. But I recognize these preferences are cultural, and had I grown up watching the Royal Ballet I'd probably love those costumes.


I saw four different couples tackle the Balanchine Grand pas de deux in this year's round of Nuts. There is often a tradeoff between partnering and solo work: solo work is usually for the young and vigorous, while partnering skills can take years to develop.
The role of the Sugarplum Fairy in the Grand pas de deux changes radically from her entrance with the wand and pink tutu. She is now aloof, almost unreachable, one of Balanchine's many goddess-muse creations. The timing is tricky: I saw four different Sugarplums this year. One of my favorite Sugarplums mis-timed the supported-pirouette-to-backbend sequence so when she did the backbend she was facing away from the audience. Another mis-timed it so she was slightly slanted from the audience. Outgoing NYTimes theater critic Alastair Macaulay has pointed out that over the years many Cavaliers have stopped doing a pause after the backbend and have gone straight to the promenade. An example is the exquisite Sterling Hyltin and Gonzalo Garcia in this video:

However with the four SPF/Cavalier couples I saw (Peck/Gordon. Woodward/Ball, Hyltin/Veyette, Reichlen/LaCour) both Gordon and La Cour did the pause after the backbend. Otherwise this pas de deux remains elusive -- two ballerinas passed all 13 hazard points without issue but also without magic. That is part of the Balanchine Nutcracker experience for hardcore balletomanes. Seeing the dancers you love conquer, and fail, and conquer again the challenges of the choreography year after year.

Here are Damian Woetzel and Darci Kistler in the final version of the Grand pas de deux. Note two moments: 1) the pause at 3:17 after Kistler's backbend, and 2) Balanchine's incorporation of the 1892 scarf moment by incorporating a pulley slide for the SPF at 4:27. You cannot argue with perfection.



So who won the battle? Both versions of Nutcracker have their virtues. I posed this question to a British ballet board and they mostly preferred Wright's version. But for me there is no comparison. Balanchine's version is not the best Nutcracker version of all, it's one of his best works, period. Every year I go back to experience the magic.

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