Seeing Balanchine and Ratmansky’s Nutcrackers back-to-back, one can’t help but compare their two. Yes, both are filled with tenderness and magic, but the overall style and approach could not be more different. Beneath the surface jollity, Balanchine’s Nutcracker is, unsurprisingly, much more formal. More of the story is conveyed in pure dance terms. Except, when it isn’t. In fact, the emotional heart of his ballet, I realized the other day, contains no dancing at all. And it is set to music from another ballet, the entr’acte from Sleeping Beauty. This yearning violin melody takes you straight to the heart of the story: a little girl encountering her first powerful emotions, which are a mystery even to her. She runs out, tiny feet flickering under her white nightgown, clutches the Nutcracker doll to her heart, and falls asleep on a couch in the cold living-room. From then on, all is mystery and magic.
Alexei Ratmansky’s Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre is less radical in its design (he does not alter the order of the music at all), and at the same time more layered and fussy. His is not a pared-down sensibility. (In the same vein, Richard Hudson’s designs are also loudly-colored and voluminous.) The ballet’s power lies in details, images that seem to come straight from the heart and to tap into a limitless reserve of memories. Little scenes like a private moment shared by the family’s two maids after the Christmas party; they titter and gently mock the dancing of the guests, but then stop to clean up a spot on the floor. Or the way Clara suffers when her brother Fritz shoves the Nutcracker to the floor; she drags the life-size doll to safety, pulling with all her strength, alone in her private struggle. (The other toys come to the rescue, but run off as soon as they see her.) Ratmansky’s imagination teems with little stories that illuminate the ballet’s throwaway moments, especially in the stronger first act. Columbine and Harlequin’s little commedia dell’arte romance for the gathered guests is a jewel of dance theatre. As is the little courtship ritual for Sugarplum’s attendants at the beginning of the second act—they approach each other shyly, run away, gather up their courage again, bow, giggle, and walk off in pairs with nervous formality.
There is no coup de théâtre in ABT’s productionequivalent to Balanchine’s awe-inspiring tree, or the sudden replacement of reality with abstraction that precedes the battle of the toy soldiers. Ratmansky’s transformation is more domestic, more tame; the tree is a disappointment. His battle, however, is terribly clever, with lines breaking and re-constituting themselves in different permutations. (Another touching detail: the toy soldiers quake with fear when they are overrun by the mice. They don’t want to die. They have souls.) Similarly, the Snowflake Waltz is a dizzying maelstrom of shifting patterns, sharpened by a frightening malevolence. The doubling of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince with adult versions of themselves is a powerful idea; the children see themselves in the future, and the two couples dance together, sharing a stage but divided by expanses of time. However the adult pas de deux at the end of the first act is rather amorphous, with the exception of a striking moment in which the male dancer turns and turns with the ballerina on his shoulders. Not so the rapturous pas de deux at the end of the ballet, which bubbles over with emotion; the adult Clara, especially, uses her torso and shoulders with great eloquence. Exciting turns morph into lifts. The choreography is quite challenging, and not all the dancers can pull it off. (Ratmansky likes to push his dancers.) Perhaps it’s a bit over-literal to finish the ballet with a wedding, like the end of Sleeping Beauty. Ratmansky’s girl-woman is a universe away from Balanchine’s poised Sugarplum, who is less a woman than a symbol of womanly poise and grandeur. Ratmansky’s view is humbler, more human.
There are imperfections in the ABT Nutcracker: More of the music in the first act could be used for dancing; the Spanish dance in the second act is uninspired and engulfed in taffeta; and it seems a shame to have the women in the Waltz of the Flowers merely frame the action, most of which goes to a group of male bees. It’s a funny conceit, but the music demands more, with its melodic waves catching in the throat like sobs. Tchaikovsky buried a private drama in the petals of a pretty waltz, but you don’t see it here. But, on the other hand, there is the adorable Chinese dance, a frisky pas de deux that ends with a Charleston, and the delicious dance of the Mirlitons with their top hats, doing dainty tendus and gliding forward in a funny sliding walk that looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland. And the tiny polichinelles! They skip and kick and form a snaking conga line, bobbing their heads, and then drop to the floor and slide back between each other’s legs. The entire company looks engaged, challenged, and happy. It’s not a perfect Nutcracker, but when it’s good, it’s really really good.