The subways are crowded with shoppers, the lights are up, and the Hare Krishnas are back at Union Square, banging out the same song they’ve been chanting since the sixties; don’t they get sick of it? Rushing past the noisy yogis or wandering through the Union Square Christmas market, where one can find all manner of useless things—wooden toys no modern kid would play with and tree decorations of dubious taste—one can’t help but smile. It’s that time of year. Still weeks away from the last-minute panic, but within striking distance of the end-of-year lull. “Nutcracker” season, too.
This year’s onslaught of “Nutcrackers” includes a new addition, a 3D broadcast from the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, the same theatre where the ballet was first performed, in 1892. (The choreography then was by Lev Ivanov, the same guy that brought us the white acts in “Swan Lake.”) This staging, though not the original, is not new; it’s the Soviet-era version by Vasily Vainonen, heavy on the heroic one-armed lifts and thin on the storytelling. Why, for example, does little Masha (i.e. Marie or Clara in local versions) suddenly metamorphose from a young adolescent into a mature ballerina? Who knows. George Balanchine, who created the “Nutcracker” we Americans are most familiar with (the one shown every year on TV, with Macaulay Culkin as the little prince), decided to put children in the kids’ roles, and adults in the adult roles. Marie was supposed to represent a real little girl; the Sugarplum Fairy, played a ballerina, was a fantasy, a metaphor. It needed no explanation. The Russian-born choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who recently made an imaginative new version for American Ballet Theatre, has taken a different approach: Clara and the little boy who plays the Nutcracker Prince briefly share the stage with a mature couple, the adult version of themselves. The older dancers represent grown-up emotion, love, life. This, again, make sense. Vainonen doesn’t seem to have considered the question very much at all.
Before a recent 3D screening, the audience picked up plastic 3D glasses at the foot of the escalator of the Regal Movie Theatre Union Square. The theatre looked half empty, even though the movie was being shown only once. As one entered the screening room, fun facts were being projected onscreen. How many hours does it take the Mariinsky dressmakers to sew a tutu? (Answer: ninety.) How many “Nutcrackers” are performed in the U.S. every year? (Answer: over two thousand.) Who made the first 3D ballet movie? It turns out it was the Mariinsky, in 2011 (“Giselle in 3D”). Obeying onscreen instructions, the audience donned its glasses, and the titles began to float by, with that strange incorporeal look of 3D, as if several translucent layers had been superimposed upon each other. Valery Gergiev took the podium, heavy-lidded and tired-looking. He began to conduct, his left hand trembling expressively, as if channeling the vibrations in the air. He led the orchestra in a much slower rendition of the overture than is typical at, say, New York City Ballet. It sounded like a different ballet altogether, heavier, less pregnant with anticipation.
Even so, it’s a treat to watch the orchestra, usually hidden away in the pit. But the 3D technology soon gets distracting. When the dancers move, the image becomes less than distinct. The eyes get tired. But if one removes the glasses, everything is a blur. A few times, a dancer leaps directly toward the audience: incoming ballerina! It’s a moment of excitement in what is an otherwise rather detached performance. The costumes are style empire, with blonde wigs for almost all the females (even the children and the flowers) and most of the males. Masha’s little brother Fritz barely misbehaves and Herr Drosselmeier, Masha’s doll-making godfather, is more of a dandy than the eccentric we’ve come to expect, though at one point he does wear a pointy magician’s hat and round Harry Potter glasses. And we shall draw a veil over the poor dancer performing the role of a Moorish soldier-doll in blackface and hoop earrings. On the other hand, the young girl in the role of Masha, Alexandra Korshunova, is absolutely lovely, with long, long legs and beautiful, crystalline technique. (In this version, she dances on pointe, even though the dancer is only twelve.) In fact, all the dancing is impeccable, if only there were more of it and the musical impetus had a little more spice to it. The Waltz of the Flowers, usually one of the most thrilling moments in the ballet, just goes on, and on.
When all else fails, one looks to the leads to save the day. In this case they are two young stars in the company: Alina Somova and Vladimir Shklyarov. Both are fantastic dancers. Like the recently-retired Ángel Corella, Shklyarov is one of those dancers who just radiate sunshine and happiness with every jump and spin. (His hair, thankfully wig-free, flops about winningly when he dances, like Corella’s.) His footwork is bracingly crisp. He’s a joy to watch. Somova is a more complicated case. She’s beautiful and long-of-limb, and impossibly supple. She can do anything, and that’s just the trouble. Everything looks too easy and a too extreme; her leg never goes up, it goes way up. Her jumps float, her waist bends, her arms ripple. But there are no accents or punctuation marks, no ebb and flow. It’s not that she’s not capable of nuance—she was marvelous two years ago in Ratmansky’s “Little Humpbacked Horse,” in which she was coached by the choreographer himself—but it doesn’t seem to come naturally. Here, she’s all potential, no focus.
The ballet comes to an end, and the audience streams out of the screening room. An air of slight disappointment lingers. But then, as one steps out of the theatre into the night, it all comes rushing back: the bongos of the Hare Krishnas, the blast of cool air, the lights, the hubbub, the anthill of people rushing home with bags or eating kebabs in the street. This is 3D.