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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.

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.)

Three Images from NYCB’s Nutcracker, Nov. 23

Lleyton Ho (Nutcracker prince), Robert La Fosse (Herr Drosselmeier), and Claire Abraham (Marie) in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker,” at New York City Ballet. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Tiler Peck as Dewdrop in the Waltz of the Flowers. (photo by Paul Kolnik.)
Rebecca Krohn as Arabian Coffee. (Photo by Paul Kolnik.)

Enter Dewdrop (DanceTabs)

The Nutcracker season has officially begun. At New York City Ballet, the ballet opened its month-long run on Nov. 23. Here is my review of that performance, with Tiler Peck as an exciting Dewdrop, carried by the music.

And here is a short excerpt:
“hen something is beautifully made it never gets old. So it is with Balanchine’s Nutcracker, first performed by New York City Ballet in 1954 and honed to near-perfection over the years. There are good performances, bad ones, and every so often a magical one, but even a middling one will do, because the structure is sound. First, there is Tchaikovsky’s score: imaginative, filled with whimsy, but also, without warning, steeped in drama. Balanchine’s interpolation of the yearning violin cadenza from The Sleeping Beauty into the scene in which Marie falls asleep with the Nutcracker in her arms is so seamless, and feels so appropriate, that one would never guess the music had been smuggled in from another ballet.”

Nutcrackers Galore (from Faster Times)

As Nutcracker season comes to NY, a meditation on two approaches (Balanchine’s and Ratmanskys’) from last year. You can see the article here.

And a short excerpt:

“People often roll their eyes at the “Nutcracker”—so conventional! So twee!—but I am amazed each year by the emotional fullness of this ballet. It must be hell to dance day in and day out for an entire month, as the New York City Ballet does each year, from the day after Thanksgiving until New Year’s Eve. We have heard tales of slippery artificial snow in the Waltz of the Snowflakes, and, thanks to Sophie Flack’s new semi-autobiographical novel “Bunheads” (a fun read) we now know that the snow-flakes have a bitter taste when they inevitably flutter into the dancers’ mouths. I’m sure it’s a bore to feign delight, or to have Tchaikovsky’s melodies playing in a continuous loop in one’s brain. I feel for the dancers, really, I do, but even so, every year I am struck by how stirring and satisfying “The Nutcracker” can be, in the right hands.”