'The Magic Nut'
by Catherine Pawlick
June 4, 2005 -- Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg
Home-grown choreographers in St. Petersburg are few and far between. The ones that do exist are underfunded, underexposed and can be counted on one hand. Big names include Boris Eifman, and the Tatchkine company. Choreographers within the Kirov are poorly promoted and without means to fully demonstrate their talents. Alexei Miroshnichenko is one young, talented choreographer whose works were set on Peter Martins’ Summer Session last year, and who was invited to choreograph solo variations for participants in the Moscow International Ballet Competition. But you won’t see his name on any big Kirov theatre productions, for any number of reasons.
Kirill Simonov is another “home grown” choreographer whose tastes lean towards the Forsythean, and who, some might say, is unofficially the Kirov’s resident choreographer. Simonov was called upon by the Mariiinsky to create a ballet for the company in 2003. A significant number of man hours and rubles later, the results were displayed on the Mariinsky stage. “Princess Pirlipat”, the predecessor to the holiday favorite, “The Nutcracker,” debuted to child-filled audiences and poor reviews. The theatre decided to attempt a revision, and this year’s “The Magic Nut”, which first premiered on May 14 with choreography by Bulgarian-born Donvena Pandoursky, is the result.
Both “Pirlipat”and “The Magic Nut” attempt to fill in the blanks left by the libretto of “The Nutcracker”. They relay the tale of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” of which the holiday ballet is only part.
“The Magic Nut” begins with the birth of Princess Pirlipat in the bird kingdom. She is born from a Faberge egg. The guests at the celebration include members of the rat nobility whose Queen, Krysilda, considers herself a peer of the bird queen in whose kitchen she lives. Krysilda and King Cardinal Kryselieu present the newborn with a Nutcracker doll. The doll frightens Pirlipat and is taken away.
The rats steal the sausages that were prepared for the celebratory banquet and Pirlipat’s father, the King, asks Drosselmeyer who is responsible. He points to the rats, who are then sentenced to execution. Krysilda vows to avenge these rat aristocrats’ lives and casts a spell on the Princess. The King calls for Drosselmeyer to protect his daughter. Drosselmeyer introduces mousetraps and cats to keep the rats away from Pirlipat.
Sixteen years later while asleep, Krysilda sneaks past the now-fat sleeping cats and bites the Princess, who is then transformed into a Nutcracker. The rats try to flee, the King arrives and Herr Drosselmeyer arrives on the scene with his nephew. Young Drosselmeyer tries to comfort the disfigured Pirlipat. The King charges Drosselmeyer with the responsibility of remedying the situation. Herr Drosselmeyer and Young Drosselmeyer make their way into the Rat Kingdom, and steal the Magic Nut. Upon breaking it, Pirlipat is restored to her former beauty and Krsyilda, in another attempt to punish the do-gooders, turns the Young Drosselmeyer into a Nutcracker. Herr Drosselmeyer, distraught, seeks a way to break the spell. Pirlipat recoils in horror and offers no help, and so Drosselmeyer finds a young girl, Masha, who loves the Nutcracker.
Simonov’s “Pirlipat” was infused with modern choreography, far from classical. One of the difficulties in this ballet was the influence of Mikhail Chemiakin’s outrageous costumes, containing large masks with long noses and tails. Dancers say these costumes inhibit movement (aside from being uncomfortable and hot). They’re also not very pleasant to look at. Unfortunately Pandoursky’s “Nut” retains the bulk of the old Chemiakin look, and any changes remain visually negligible at best. The result is, with the exception of a few scenes, a rather grotesque and frightening “fairytale” that is bound to result in more nightmares than sweet dreams.
During the ballet's third “premiere” performance on Saturday – for three “premieres” were listed on the playbill, but this is the “premiere” that occurs during the White Nights Festival -- the house was full, mostly of little girls in poufy gauze hair bows, some in ballet “dresses”, all within arm’s length of a mother’s hand. To this sold-out house some of the oddities described above began, and one had to sift through them in order to find the moments of inspiration and greatness.
Those moments of inspiration were rare but present. Two new scenes added to the ballet by Pandoursky were not present in Simonov’s “Pirlipat” and, if distracting from plot continuity, at least provide respite from the ugly rat kingdom. The first is a whimsical underwater aquatic kingdom, full of trident-carrying plastic fin-wearing sea creatures of various shapes and sizes, and seaweed girls in green unitards with two-foot tall seaweed ‘hair’ that whish to and fro. There is even an oversexed female frog who latches on to the Drosselmeyer men like a chemical reaction gone wild.
The second is a heavenly kingdom situated in the clouds with satyrs, cupids and Bacchanalian characters. The latter has a delightful sequence with the leading nymph “Temptress”, clothed as a greek goddess, her hair rimmed with a green wreath, danced by Tatiana Tkachenko. Tkachenko is allowed a set of fouettes after her sensual pas de deux with the Young Drosselmeyer, which was by far the technical highlight of the entire ballet. These scenes are puerile entertainment for the younger members of the audience, showing the temptations and distractions faced by the relatives Drosselmeyer on their way to finding the Magic Nut and as such they distract slightly from the flow of the libretto. They offer only glimpses of interesting dancing but should be credited for their whimsical nature.
For this premiere, Prince Charming – rather, Young Drosselmeyer, danced by Andrei Mercuriev – saves the day, but only in time for Fate to boomerang and deliver him a blow of condemnation. Nonetheless, from his first entrance onstage, cleanly clothed in white tights and red-and-green doublet, he was the breath of fresh air and touch of reality – unmarred by strange costuming that impedes the view of these classical dancers' lines everywhere else in the ballet. His jumps and partnering were ever steady and always reliable. Moreover, one could sense his care for Pirlipat, danced by Dumchenko, despite her character's superficial qualities. Dumchenko for her part danced cleanly and also brought a touch of humanity to the production. One felt relief being able to see a ballerina clothed in pointe shoes, tights, and a simple dress costume, against the background of the other outlandish wardrobe decisions.
Sergei Slonimsky, currently professor of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and receipient of numerous prizes, takes a Prokofiev-like approach to the musical score, similar to “Peter and the Wolf” – Drosselmeyer’s presence is represented by somber organ chords that suggest evil sorcery more than kind-hearted magic. Cats dance to lone xylophones, mice to retro electronic music and so on. Were the score more complex or the musical symbolism more consistent, this approach might add another dimension to the score, but it fails to do so. There is no link to the themes of Tchaikovsky – Slominsky states that he did this purposefully-- and no readily recognizable representation for the various characters on stage. One exception to this exists -- the pas de deux between Pirlipat and Young Drosselmeyer. Maya Dumchenko and Andrei Mercuriev danced those simple steps to music that was fully symphonic. A shame that more of the score does not follow this pattern.
Unfortunately too, Pandursky’s choreography neither deviates drastically from its preceding version (by Simonov) nor does it offer a fresh approach in this ballet. There are no choreographic fireworks, and in fact the bulk of the steps are simply space fillers, never complex or deeply challenging. Some of the underwater characters are not dancing – they're merely hopping to musak in plastic fins. As such, this is more a musical than a ballet, more a children’s entertainment production than a work of high art. If one approaches it that way, disappointment won’t follow.
Edited by Staff.
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