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Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve - 'Casse-Noisette'

by Kate Snedeker

December 17 - 18, 2005 -- Batiment des Forces Motrices, Geneva

This Christmas, one of the best balletic presents was Benjamin Millepied’s brand new “Casse-Noisette” for the Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve.  In a world full of saccharine sweet, cotton-candy clone "Nutcrackers", Millepied dared to break the mold, and the result was something unique, engaging and very special indeed. A production that utilized the lighting skill of Rémi Nicolas and Paul Cox’s innovative designs, “Casse-Noisette” marks Millepied’s successful entrée into full-length ballets.

The Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve is a small company -- just 24 dancers,-- with a repertory that emphasizes more modern, innovative works.  And though Benjamin Millepied is best known as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, he arrived in ballet via initial training in African and modern dance.  So it's no surprise that his “Casse-Noisette” has a very clear contemporary core; his dance background is apparent in the choreography, which tends to be low to the ground, eschewing many high lifts and stretching the body into shapes that aren't always classical.  Pointe shoes are a rarity, with character shoes the primary footwear.

What really separates this production from all others, however, are Paul Cox's clever set designs. The whole concept is that of the child's point of view -- simple shapes and bold colors. Each scene is introduced through a black and white picture -- “drawn” by André Hamelin’s Drosselmeyer at a little desk on stage right and appearing on the white curtain screen. These childlike drawings appear very much in rhythm with the music and cleverly integrate the titles of the ballet.  The first picture is of a house framed by cable-car towers, mountains and snowflakes, an image turned upside down into a giant snow-globe for the second act.

When the curtain rises, the era is 21st century Ikean -- a big yellow house framed by red cable car towers, with a snowy white Marley ”snow” floor. The furniture is spare and simple -- the tree a big, green cone and the presents multicolored boxes of all shapes and sizes. While at first a bit decoratively underwhelming, with the addition of music and dance it becomes warm and welcoming.

The party guests arrive by ski, snowshoe and foot for a small but energetic party.  Clara and Drosselmeyer's nephew are played by children, the rest are all adults.  Nina Cachelin was an adorable Clara in a white top and long, fifties-flouncy red skirt, while Lou Perret was an uber-serious nephew and Nutcracker.  However in both his inanimate and animate forms, this Nutracker was none other than a frog prince -- because, of course, a girl must kiss a frog to find her prince!

André Hamelin’s Drosselmeyer is younger than most and a bit rakish.  Yet Hamelin is a natural and effective character dancer, creating the right mix of humor, mystery and magic. There's a humorous moment when the tipsy female party guests vie for his attentions, and in the finale he has a wonderful pas de deux with Mother Ginger.

In the choreography for the toy dolls, Millepied subtly plays on Balanchine’s classic choreography.  The Harlequin doll does the traditional bravura steps, but the unfortunate Columbine doll is nothing but trouble. First she gets stuck against a present, kicking it repeatedly until rescued, later runs out of power, then in the finale, chaines past her waiting Harlequin and off the stage.

Millepied is at his most successful in the group numbers, and the increasing gentle bawdiness of the dances reflects the amount of spirits being consumed.   There’s even a rambunctious but impressive tap-dance for Roger Van der Poel’s (adult) Fritz.  Hardly traditional, but the music is surprisingly fitting and Van der Poel is a wonderful tapper.

At the conclusion of the party, with the children asleep, we are treated to a touching, and extended pas de deux for Clara’s parents, who also return in pajama for another pas de deux in the snow scene.  The pas de deux is a welcome use of the glorious music, so often relegated as background to scene-changes.

Here Millepied has, for the most part, created choreography that fits the ballet, the music and the dancers.  As the parents, Celine Cassone and Bruno Roy are physically and temperamentally well matched, with a quiet, flowing tension that benefited from totally flawless partnering. 

Millepied's choreography is at its best when he lets the dancers slow down for a second, as in a repeated sequence where Cassone rises up on one foot (she's in soft slippers), the other leg extended out just higher than the floor, arms stretched up, and is balanced by Roy in a slight lean. She hangs there for a moment longer than seems possible, and then he lets her gently, but without losing the tension, swoop back into his arms (reminiscent of the second act pas de deux finale in Balanchine's “A Midsummer Night's Dream”).  Also striking is Millepied’s frequent use of slides, Cassone parting the carpeting of snowflakes as the Roy pulls her quickly across the stage and up into a standing position.

Paul Cox’s imagery is at its most magical when it is called upon to create the vision of the growing Christmas tree -- an effect impossible in reality due to the low roof of the theatre. At his table and on the curtain screen, Drosselmeyer draws a tiny triangle, and without lifting the pen, continues to draw larger and larger concentric triangles. The speed and swooping of the line reflects the crescendos of the music, and not only does the animated image mimic the shape of an enlarging tree, but the concentric triangles create an almost three-dimensional gateway.

At the crescendo, the curtain rises to reveal the house in giant size, the setting for a satisfying battle between rotund mice and female solider, led by their Froggy Nutcracker Prince. The one weak link was that there was no clear transformation of the Nutcracker from toy to living doll.  This change is part of the ballet’s magic and here somewhat lost in the chaos.

By far, the finest choreography of the ballet is that of the dance of the snowflakes. Though the falling snow effect is somewhat muted by the all-white scenery and floor, Millepied's snowflakes are something very special. The opening patterns, with one snowflake then another, might be reminiscent of Balanchine, but the remainder is pure Millepied. 

There are 16 snowflakes, eight men and eight women, all in white tights, skirts and tops.  The long skirts pick up every movement, giving the dance a softness and feeling of eternal motion, for even when the dancers do momentarily stop the skirts don't have time to settle before the next step.

By using coed snowflakes, Millepied was able to incorporate lifts and partnering, and utilize the strengths of both sexes -- female delicacy and precision, male power and speed.  The most striking moment is when all four lines of snowflakes come spinning out of each wing, skirts swirling around them, meeting in the middle -- a stage full of white whirling snowflake-dervishes.  The finale is no less visually stunning -- the eight women jump up into a half turn, ending in the arms of their partner, the jumps arrested just as the music ends. The lasting image is that off all sixteen dancers spinning, the white skirts swirling out around them -- how better to capture the movement of snowflakes.

The magical scene was completed by the more than 60 angelic voices of three Geneva children’s music conservatory choirs.

To start Act II, the house, towers and snow are drawn again on the giant screen, this time upside down and in a snow globe.  And when the curtain rises, the yellow house of Act I is now also upside down.  Clara and her Prince sit on the ceiling (now the floor) their feet resting on a giant globe.

In general, the divertissements were delightful, if somewhat under-rehearsed. Luc Bernard and Ilias Ziragachi were stunning in the Chinese dance, drawing gasps in the finale where one dancer did double tours between the two poles spun around by the other.  Fernanda Barbosa and Violaine Roth were wonderful in the Arabian duo.  Millepied has thankfully chosen to free the dancers of the un-natural toe shoes and his Arabian dance was full of mirror imagery, and earthy, stretched-out movements.

Raising eyebrows and drawing chuckles was the wife-beater and puffy-skirt clad Mother Ginger -- no pretention of make-up here, just a big dame with day-old stubble and an attitude. It was hilarious, if perhaps a bit over the top, but Gregory Deltenre was fabulous, making it funny without being too camp, and showing considerable stamina.

The waltz of the flowers was a real waltz, with four men in blue, with green wellies and yellow hats and four women in bright colored skirts, green tops and flower pot hats.

The glaring weak spot of the second act was, unfortunately, the grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier.  The fairly traditional classical pas deux, complete with pointe shoes, tiara and white tights, seemed at odds with the decidedly contemporary feel of the rest of the ballet.   And in sticking with the traditional pas de deux, Millepied seemed to have moved away from his choreographic strengths and the dance strengths of his dancers, Cecile Robin Prevallee and Grant Aris.

The result was flat choreography that looked vaguely awkward, and fairly uninspiring.  It didn't help that the couple were badly mismatched with Prevallee, a compact powerhouse, barely reaching the shoulders of the long and lanky Aris.  Both danced competently, but their final pose gave way, leaving them sprawled on the floor.

I couldn't help but wishing that Millepied would have moved the parents’ pas de deux or create a pas de deux like it for the grand pas de deux. The parents’ pas deux had the emotion, tension and a final crescendo that the sugar plum pas de deux did not. And since the rest of the ballet has a modern feel, a grand pas deux in soft shoes would have fit nicely, and have shown off the dancers in a better light.

The ballet ended on a high point, with all the divertissements returning for one last festive dance, including a pas de deux for Drosselmeyer and Mother Ginger.

It was a most unexpected and delightful night of dance.  I very much hope the company will keep this production of “Casse-Noisette” so that Millepied will have a chance to tweak and rework the weaker parts.  For this is a magical production, cleverly suited to the talents of the Geneva dancer and one that deserves to be seen by audiences beyond Geneva.

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