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Nutcracker x 2

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.

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.)

American Ballet Theatre is Leaving City Center

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that “American Ballet Theatre will announce Wednesday that it has signed a three-year deal to perform at the David H. Koch Theater, starting in October 2013 with a two-week season.”
That means the end of City Center seasons, though the decision won’t affect the Met season or the Nutcracker run at BAM. Still, it’s a big change. More fallout from City Opera’s desertion of Lincoln Center.

Ratmansky’s smashing new ballet for ABT (DanceTabs)

The première of Ratmansky’s new “Symphony #9,” set to Shostakovich, was one of those moments when, within seconds, you know you are in for a wild ride. Like much of his work, it’s witty, grand in design, and full of detail. It’s also an impressive vehicle for the dancers—they look absolutely radiant and extraordinary in it. Especially Herman Cornejo; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him pushed so far. What more can a dancer ask for?

Here a link to my review for DanceTabs:

And here’s an excerpt:

“Wisely, Ratmansky hasn’t given Cornejo a partner, the better to show off the musicality of his dancing, the stretch of his legs in the air, the way his body reveals the shifts in dynamics and the melodic line. In the final movement Ratmansky pushes him even further: Cornejo seems to be moving faster than is humanly possible. If it doesn’t kill him, it will place him on the Mount Olympus of male bravura.”