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Adelaide Clauss and Philip Perez as Clara and the Nutcracker prince in Ratmansky's Nutcracker for ABT. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Adelaide Clauss and Philip Perez as Clara and the Nutcracker prince in Ratmansky’s Nutcracker for ABT. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

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.

The opening of the gifts. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
The opening of the gifts. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

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.

The snowflakes. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
The snowflakes. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

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.

Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in the Chinese Dance. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin in the Chinese Dance. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

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.

Xiomara Reyes and Eric Tamm as Princess Clara and the Prince. Photo by Gene Schiavone.
Xiomara Reyes and Eric Tamm as Princess Clara and the Prince. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Sculpting Clay: Russell Maliphant’s Rodin Project at the Joyce

This week the Joyce was presenting Russell Maliphant’s Rodin Project, a meditation on the torque and muscular power of Rodin’s sculptures. You can see the review here.

And here’s a short excerpt:

“One can see why a choreographer might be drawn to Rodin, who hewed dancers from clay and bronze, creating the illusion of movement. Why not infuse these figures with life and set them in motion? The English choreographer, Russell Maliphant, seems fascinated by the idea of animating visual art – Nijinsky’s circular drawings were the subject of his recent Afterlife. But it’s easy to see the pitfalls of such a venture, and though Maliphant’s Rodin Project avoids some of them, it cannot dodge them all.”

The Mariinsky’s 3D “Nutcracker”

The Christmas market in Union Square the other night.
The Christmas market in Union Square the other night.

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.

The battle of the toy soldiers in the Mariinsky Nutcracker. Photo by Valentin Baranovsky.
The battle of the toy soldiers in the Mariinsky Nutcracker. Photo by Valentin Baranovsky.

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.

The twelve-year-old Alexandra Korshunova as Masha. Photo by Valentin Baranovsky.
The twelve-year-old Alexandra Korshunova as Masha. Photo by Valentin Baranovsky.

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.

Alina Cojocaru (Masha) and Vladimir Shklyarov (the Nutcracker Prince) int he Mariinsky Nutcracker. Photo by Valentin Baranovsky.
Alina Somova (Masha) and Vladimir Shklyarov (the Nutcracker Prince) in the Mariinsky Nutcracker. Photo by Valentin Baranovsky.

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.

Wendy Whelan and Dance Theatre of Harlem at Jacob’s Pillow

Jacob’s Pillow just announced that both Wendy Whelan and the newly-revived Dance Theatre of Harlem will appear at the festival next summer. DTH will open the festival in June (19-23), with a program that includes Agon (Balanchine) and The Lark Ascending (Ailey). Then, in August, Whelan will perform an evening of duets—not solos, mind you— created for her by four contemporary choreographers: Kyle Abraham, Joshua Beamish, Brian Brooks, and Alejandro Cerrudo.

This is exciting news indeed. Whelan, now in the latter part of her career at NYCB, is one of the most intriguing, soulful dancers around. Watching her, one sees the mental impulse that makes dance into more than a mere physical exercise, as well as the hunger to explore new territory. Lots to look forward to next summer.

A portrait of Wendy Whelan (and cat) by Andrea Mohin, for the New York Times.
A portrait of Wendy Whelan (and cat) by Andrea Mohin, for the New York Times.

Another Nutcracker

In Alexei Ratmansky’s new “Nutcracker”, now in its third season, the heroine (Clara) is not quite a little girl, more like a pre-teen. Because of this, her feelings for the Nutcracker and his human incarnation are, well, complicated. When he collapses after his battle with the Mouse King, she tends to him with great seriousness, as an adult would, but moments later, there they are, throwing snowballs at each other like kids. Conversely, in her pas de deux, the adult ballerina who represents Clara’s future self, cries like a little girl. The little girl never quite disappears. As in Tachikovsky’s sumptuous, deceptively sunny score, turbulent emotions lie just below the surface. Growing up is hard—loss lurks at every corner. But, like Tchaikovsky, Ratmansky has the good sense to fold this somber message into a sparkling, delightful package, filled with children and lush, imaginative choreography.

Gomes:Part(Photo by Andrea Mohin for the NYTimes. Dancers: Marcelo Gomes and Veronika Part.)

Interview with Valerie Barnes (for DanceTabs)

I recently sat down with Valerie Taylor Barnes, wife of the late critic Clive Barnes and founder of the Clive Barnes Foundation, rewarding what she calls “that mysterious thing called artistry.” She is incredibly gracious, funny, and full of stories. You can read the interview here.

Here she is, talking about Frederick Ashton:

“I loved all his work. He was a wonderful, wonderful man, absolutely lovely. He was very, very sensitive. I never knew him to lose his temper, with all the trials and tribulations; he was always just terrific, with a great sense of humor. I learned, well, I suppose everything I knew about the theatre from him. He was very open and generous with everything. His way of choreographing was wonderful because he would ask us to join in. He would say: ‘Just do a step to that,’ and even if he didn’t use it, you felt like you were partaking in what was going on. It kept everybody interested. I think everybody loved him. He was an amazing man.”

Back to Ballet: Tere O’Connor at New York Live Arts (for DanceTabs)

On Nov. 30, I saw Tere O’Connor’s latest program at NYLa, consisting of two pieces, Poem  and Secret Mary. The most exciting aspect of the evening was the involvement of Silas Riener, formerly of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He’s an exciting performer, and his dancing brought focus and clarity to the second work, Poem. The other interesting detail was the number of references to ballet that popped up in the two pieces. Anyway, you can read my review here.

And here’s a short excerpt:

“Tere O’Connor can be a frustrating choreographer. Look for structure and you’ll likely be thwarted, frustrated, or worse. Because it clearly is there, but you can’t understand it. The usual signposts – music, narrative, development – don’t help. As he himself states, his interest lies in “placing distinctly unrelated strains of material into complex relational networks that do not search to create narrative resolution.” That’s just the way his mind works. It’s an insider’s game: you can sense that the dancers know why they do certain things at certain times, but you, the viewer, are not privy to that logic.”