Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Balanchine's Nutcracker pops up ... everywhere

It's December 2020 and the world is going through a furious, deadly second wave of the covid pandemic. Most performances have been canceled. How do ballet companies make money during their traditional Nutcracker season now that Land of the Sweets has been replaced by Land of the Sick? Well, they stream Nutcrackers from their archives, of course. George Balanchine's classic 1954 version of Nutcracker was streamed by no less than four different companies. The New York City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Royal Danish Ballet, and Pennsylvania Ballet all offered performances of Balanchine's chestnut.

Seeing the four different renditions of Balanchine's Nutcracker affirms the greatness of this version. It's remarkably resilient -- it does not rely on one dancer to carry it. Some of the most awe-inspiring moments actually don't involve professional dancers at all. For instance, I've never sat through Balanchine's Nutcracker without getting a lump in my throat when the Prince's Nutcracker costume is ripped off and he comes to the lip of the stage and bows to the audience in tendu.

Yet the different streamed performances show how this ballet differs depending on the production. Each production had a different look, flavor, and accent. NYCB's Nutcracker tends to go for the grand tableaus like the huge snow blizzard and growing tree. Other companies like the Pacific Northwest Ballet emphasize the coziness of the ballet. Watching the four versions is a bit like sampling the same dish from different restaurants. 


Maria Kowroski as Sugar Plum Fairy

New York City Ballet's streamed performance starred Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle as Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier. Kowroski is a lovely dancer -- beautiful legs, feet, smile. But her technique has faded (she is set to retire next year). Her footwork in the celesta variation was rather slow -- in the coda where the SPF has to executes a bunch of fast passés her feet lagged behind the music. Everything was done but effortful. Kowroski still has moments of beauty (her arabesque is absolutely stunning) but this was a dancer caught a few years too late. Tyler Angle partnered her beautifully but looked rather grim and perfunctory. I saw four different Nutcracker casts last year and all of them were much stronger than Kowroski/Angle. An interesting note: former NYTimes critic Alastair Macaulay complained for years that NYCB dancers no longer did the pause before the back-bend promenade. It has been restored in recent years. As I watched four different companies stream the Nutcracker NYCB is the only company that restored the pause before the backbend.

Megan Fairchild (Dewdrop) is also a veteran dancer. Her skills have not eroded -- all the Dewdrop's tricky turns and leaps were there. Her diagonal of rond de jambe sautés flew with no effort. Fairchild's Dewdrop is a remarkable preservation of ballerina technique.

Kai Misrai Stone as Nutcracker Prince
The smaller variations also gave pleasure. Georgina Pazcoguin (Coffee), Lauren King (Marzipan), and Daniel Ulbricht (Candy Cane) have also danced these roles for years but their performances still have energy and enthusiasm. I'm glad this video preserved Preston Chamblee's Mother Ginger -- he's been the most frequent Mother Ginger since he joined the company and is always funny. The SAB kids (especially Kai Misra Stone as the Nutcracker Prince and the 8 Polichinelles) were wonderful -- their mime clear, their dancing precise. NYCB is the company that really uses young kids -- the other versions use much older, taller kids. The cuteness factor of such tiny angels never goes away. Of all the Balanchine Nuts NYCB's remains the most handsome -- the growing tree, the barrage of "snowflakes," the classic costumes by Karinska, and the colorful sets by Rouben Ter-Arturian, all cast their spell.


Act One party scene
Pacific Northwest Ballet's rendition was very nice, a pleasing performance. Ian Falconer's sets and costumes are much prettier in the first act -- I really liked the cozy Stahlbaum home, the turquoise costume the Nutcracker Prince wears (very handsome!!!) and the woodsy background of the Waltz of the Snowflakes. Not as fond of the second act decor -- a bit of a color clash with all those yellow, reds, greens, and oranges, but it's not an unattractive production. I loved the peacock costume of Coffee. Judith Fugate and Peter Boal have done a good job recreating Balanchine's Nutcracker to the west coast.

Leta Biasucci and Lucien Postelwaite
The corps for the most part dance well, and some of the soloists dance extremely well. The tempi were slower than what I'm accustomed to at NYCB. Angelica Generosa as Marzipan was wonderful -- she really nailed a very difficult variation. I also enjoyed Lindisi Dec's Coffee. The children were good -- they are older and more mature than the NYCB children. Jack Kaspar was a winning, sensitive Nutcracker Prince and Zoe Alvarado a charming Clara (she's called Clara in this production instead of Marie). 

The dancing of the leads was somewhat basic -- correct dancing without much personality. SPF (Leta Biasucci) has excellent technique. She sailed through the difficult grand adagio without any noticeable strain. She has strong turns, strong balance, strong jumps. She does one of my favorite variants -- the bidirectional double pirouettes in the grand adagio. Unfortunately, she also mugs unbearably -- STOP THE SHOWGIRL GRINNING! I remember seeing her in Square Dance when PNB toured NY a few years ago -- her mugging ruined the ballet then too. Her Cavalier Lucien Postelwaite is one of those Cavaliers (like Tyler Angle) that disappears completely behind the ballerina. This is neither good nor bad, but it did make his solo in the coda rather dull. Elizabeth Murphy (Dewdrop) was excellent, did all the steps, has a nice classical line. Somewhere in the middle of the performance, I thought Murphy should have been the SPF and Leta Biassuci the Dewdrop, and I've watched this two more times and am even more convinced.

Overall this was a quality performance of Balanchine's chestnut and shows what a smaller regional company can do with the ballet.

Lillian di Piazza as SPF
The Pennsylvania Ballet's streamed performance was actually the farthest from Balanchine style, even though PA Ballet has danced the Balanchine version since 1968 (!!!). The company has undergone extensive turnover since Angel Corella took over as Artistic Director in 2014. Corella has focused the company more on the classics (in recent years he's mounted new productions of Giselle, Don Quixote. Romeo and Juliet, Le Corsaire, Swan Lake, and La Bayadere). The company now dances Balanchine's Nutcracker with a distinct foreign accent. The dancers are slower, with a more deliberate preparation for pirouettes. The snow scene suffered from snowflakes that did not move very fast in the whirling choreography Balanchine created for the "blizzard." The corps looked sloppy and ragged -- arms were all over the place. The lack of care extends to the sets by Peter Horne and costumes by Judanna Lynn -- both look tatty and faded, as if there hasn't been much maintenance and upkeep. 

The lead dancers were just okay. It is hard to tell how their dancing read in the auditorium because the camerawork was very poor -- it was shot on a stationary camera that zoomed in at the worst moments and completely missed both the geometrical patterns Balanchine made with the corps and some important entrances and exits of dancers. 

Lillian DiPiazza as the Sugarplum Fairy looks like Ava Gardner but dances without much technical security -- wobbly hands, shaky balances, and hesitation in the most climactic moments made for a rather underwhelming impression. Sterling Baca is an excellent bravura dancer but his partnering left something to be desired. Mayara Piniero as Dewdrop was more impressive -- she has big jumps and great turns. She finished one difficult Dewdrop solo with a quintuple pirouette. She was only lacking some refinement. Oksana Maslova could do the steps for Coffee but couldn't get the timing for the bells right. Maslova was also the only Coffee of the four streamed versions to not do the harder bent-leg pirouettes in the finale. On the bright side, Zecheng Liang (Tea), Jermel Johnson (Candy Cane) and Charles Askergard (Drosselmeier) captured the style and energy of Balanchine's Nutcracker. Overall this was a very uninspired performance.

Royal Danish Ballet's Nutcracker
The Royal Danish version was the best overall. This is the production that captures the magic of Balanchine's dance. The sets and costumes by Anthony Ward have plenty of quirky charm. Its decor was very different -- the first act party is very European -- more sophisticated. Marie gets a fancy dress for her Act 2 sojourn to the Kingdom of the Sweets. There are some boys playing with dolls in the party scene -- a nod to how toys were never strictly gendered in reality. 

First act party scene
There were some compromises because of the smallness of the stage. The tree did not grow -- a panel simply opened up to show a much larger tree. The snowflakes were mere projections instead of actual confetti snow. The background of the Land of the Sweets is a little more than a gigantic cookie jar. No matter -- the magic of the ballet was captured, and that's all that matters.

The dancing style of the Danes closely resembles the speed and quick footwork that are hallmarks of Balanchine's style. Nikolaj Hubbe makes a significant departure from the final Balanchine Nutcracker -- Balanchine cut the Cavalier's solo and moved the Sugar Plum Fairy celesta variation to the beginning of Act 2. Hubbe restores the Cavalier solo and has the SPF dance the celesta solo after the Cavalier. The version most resembles Mr. B's earliest thoughts -- here's a video of Diana Adams and Nicholas Magallanes in version 1 of the pas de deux. I actually like this arrangement better, and hope more companies take it up in the future.


RDB's Nutcracker
The cast was uniformly excellent. Holly Dorger and Marcin Kupinski as the SPF and Cavalier struck the right balance between charm and technique.  They even did some nifty one-handed partnering in perhaps the hardest moment of the pas de deux - the relevé-to-pique-turn-to-arabesque-penchée lunge. Dorger was the only SPF to really glow like the best SPF's do. Lena-Maria Gruber was a speedy, graceful Dewdrop. Her technique wasn't showy but she gave the impression of sailing through the choreography. Silvia Selvini not only managed the difficult petit allegro steps of the Marzipan shepherdess but made it look easy. (Side note: she looks so much like Kathryn Morgan.) The ONLY criticism is that the party scene adults were played by younger company members. When a company has the greatest tradition of character dancers in the world, why not use them? Gregory Dean's Drosselmeier was more flamboyant than the gentle eccentric we're used to seeing in NY. 

The best Balanchine Nutcracker tribute is actually in the form of a documentary that is streaming on Disney Plus. On Pointe is a six-part documentary of the School of American Ballet and focuses on one season of the Nutcracker. We see a bunch of tiny dancers audition, rehearse and perform the various roles Balanchine created for children in Nutcracker -- the Polichinelles, party scene, Candy Canes, Angels. The school also follows some students in the advanced division as they audition for spots in professional ballet companies. 

This is a Disney production so it's wholesome and family-friendly. It's not a Russian-style documentary of their elite ballet schools which always contains plenty of yelling teachers, crying students, and gaunt girls told that they're too "fat." But On Pointe does cover the heartbreaks and anxieties all dancers face, from the very tiny angels to the students auditioning for companies. People talk frankly about the competition, the injuries, the financial strain it puts on families.

The younger kids competing for Nutcracker roles are all adorable -- focused, determined, hard-working kids who juggle the demands of school, rehearsals, and an exhausting series of performances. The students' backgrounds differ -- one girl Emma comes from a wealthy family (she has a stable with a pony), another girl (the wide-eyed Isabella) lives with her immigrant family in a working-class area of the Bronx. In one of the most heartwarming scenes, the family celebrates both Isabella's father passing his citizenship test and Isabella's participation in the Nutcracker. The overall feeling one gets is of admiration for everyone involved, from the patient teachers Dena Abergel and Arch Higgins to the supportive parents and most of all the amazing child dancers. You also see the respect between the principal dancers in the company and the SAB students -- Lauren Lovette greets the Angels by talking frankly about the time she face-planted her variation.

The documentary ends up whetting ones' appetite for Balanchine's Nutcracker because we see that this production truly gives kids a chance to shine as brightly as the professional dancers. The choreography he made for kids is challenging but always age-appropriate. It's truly an eternal Christmas present he gave to kids and their families (both dancers and the audience).

On Pointe ends on a sudden, ominous note -- the pandemic has upended the performing arts industry. Careers have been stalled, companies face disastrous financial shortfalls, and for the first time since 1954 there has been no Nutcracker season in NY. On Pointe makes the best possible case to support SAB and NYCB when they come back. 

4 comments:

  1. Hi there! Could you please share how you watched the Royal Danish Ballet's Nutcracker? I can't find it streaming anywhere! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. https://kglteater.dk/xtra/forestillinger

      If you can't get around the geo block contact me.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, it says my location blocks me :( I can't seem to find your email on your website though. Is there a way I may contact you? Also, I used to live in Queens :)

      Delete
    3. Downloadable link here:

      https://www.filemail.com/d/hoafrrxmuvbeuge

      Delete

Balanchine's Nutcracker pops up ... everywhere

It's December 2020 and the world is going through a furious, deadly second wave of the covid pandemic. Most performances have been cance...