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American Ballet Theater

'The Nutcracker'

by Jerry Hochman

Deceber 23 and 26, 2010 -- Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York City, NY

Had I seen only one performance of Alexei Ratmansky’s new vision of The Nutcracker
for American Ballet Theater (the final ‘preview’ at the matinee performance on
December 23), I would have declared it an unfortunate way to have spent a few million
dollars. And I would have written a review emphasizing the costumes (beautifully
created by Richard Hudson) and how great the kids were, and I would have continued to
mourn the loss of the version created by Mikhail Baryshnikov for ABT in 1976.

Three performances later, I now see this Nutcracker to be a major artistic achievement.
What Mr. Ratmansky’s production may lack in glitz and glamour it makes up for in
humor and heart. This is a Nutcracker to cherish.

And how can anyone not like a Nutcracker in which the stars of the performance are a
hyperactive little mouse and some astonishingly accomplished young dancers.

Whether by necessity or intent, Ratmansky’s creation is a sort of ‘chamber’ Nutcracker –
it’s on a more intimate scale than the other version of The Nutcracker that resides in
Manhattan (and many other parts of the world) between Thanksgiving and New Years’
weekend. As a result, and though it’s still a rendering of a young girl’s Christmas Eve
and her Christmas Eve fantasy, it’s not a trip to a Nutcracker Disneyworld – it looks and
feels more ‘real,’ a dream that the audience experiences, rather than watches.

More significantly, Clara is the focal point of this production, and Clara’s dream, as we
see it, is Clara’s dream as she dreams it. And even though the grown-up Clara (“Clara,
the Princess” as she is identified in the program) is a separate character on stage, she
exists through Clara’s eyes. That is, Princess Clara is grown-up Clara as Clara imagines
her to be – emotionally, and at times even choreographically, she’s still young Clara.
Consequently, there is not so much a transition from young Clara to Princess Clara as
there is a connection between them. And when this connection works, what happens
onstage is both miraculous and breathtaking.

This production does not significantly modify the basic Nutcracker story. But the nuts
and bolts of Ratmansky’s production are idiosyncratic. This isn’t your mother’s
Nutcracker.

Ratmansky’s Nutcracker opens to a kitchen, where cooks and maids are frantically
preparing food for a festive Christmas Eve dinner, and into which a variety of characters
wander. Suddenly, we see that a little mouse has taken up residence in the kitchen, and
after he is discovered and scampers around, he scares everyone in the kitchen, including
little Clara. As the cooks and maids exit, the kitchen is overrun by a small army of larger
mice looking for a free meal. Clara’s strange godfather, Drosselmeyer, also finds his way
to the kitchen, where he gives his child-sized Nutcracker doll a test run (making sure it
can walk and crack nuts), and then removes a little wooden toy Nutcracker that he had
hidden in his cape. [There are four Nutcracker-related ‘characters’ in this piece: the little
wooden nutcracker toy, the boy-sized nutcracker doll, the ‘alive’ Nutcracker Boy (both
the nutcracker doll and the Nutcracker Boy are identified as the “Nutcracker Boy” and
portrayed by the same young dancer), and the grown-up Nutcracker Prince
(labeled “Nutcracker, the Prince” in the program).]

This one short scene illustrates some of what I like, and some of what I have difficulty
with, in this production. Having the first scene open on the frenzied kitchen preparations
is an intelligent and fanciful way to introduce the action. And having mice invade the
kitchen is deliciously clever in a number of ways: it introduces the glorious little mouse
character, it adds ‘real’ comedy and fun (as opposed to the frenetic, almost slapstick,
comedy of the chefs and maids), but most important, it lays the foundation for Clara’s
dream mouse/soldier battle to come.

But the scene is also problematic in several ways. For example, although it makes perfect
sense for Clara and other family members to wander into the kitchen to monitor the
preparations or sneak a taste, what’s Drosselmeyer doing there? He hasn’t arrived yet, at
least not corporeally. Or is Drosselmeyer’s appearance ‘really’ happening at some other
location that has nothing to do with the kitchen? It’s not clear – at least to this viewer.
Also awkwardly handled is the way the boy-sized nutcracker doll and the nutcracker toy
are introduced. The audience is supposed to know (through the program notes) that in
Clara’s fantasy dream the little nutcracker toy becomes the boy-sized nutcracker doll,
which then becomes the Nutcracker Boy, which then becomes the Nutcracker Prince. But
the staging first reveals the nutcracker doll and the nutcracker toy not through Clara’s
eyes, but as introduced by Drosselmeyer. And when Drosselmeyer, who is supposed to
be a magician of sorts, presents the two nutcrackers in the kitchen (or wherever he really

is), there’s no recognizable connection between the two – he’s not pulling the nutcracker
doll out of some metaphorical hat into which the audience first saw him put the
nutcracker toy. Perhaps an illusion where both nutcrackers are on stage at the same time
but appear as different objects in a “false mirror,” or even a strategically placed puff of
smoke, might have done the trick.

The kitchen scene gives way to the Stahlbaums' gracious and cozy living room, where a
pleasant time is had by all (except maybe Clara, who has this really annoying little
brother). Strange Mr. Drosselmeyer enters, except he’s not recognized as Drosselmeyer
at first – he’s just this creepy and scary stranger.

After Drosselmeyer reveals who he really is (he’s still creepy and scary, but he’s family),
he presents Clara with the boy-sized nutcracker doll (or what the audience is supposed to
know is Clara’s fantasy of the nutcracker toy that Drosselmeyer is really giving her).
Clara’s brother Fritz (who must have missed his regular dose of ADHD meds) wounds
the nutcracker doll, making him unable to ‘move’. Clara slides this boy-sized nutcracker
doll to safety. [Really – little Clara lugs the Nutcracker Boy across the stage. By herself.]
Then the nutcracker doll disappears, replaced by the toy nutcracker, which had been there
all along.

After the party ends, strange things start happening. The tree doesn’t grow like other
Nutcracker trees (taller branches seem to get grafted to it to make it look bigger, and then
it’s hustled off stage and replaced by the tree’s bottom branches on steroids). But a chair
does grow, with Clara in it. Scary mice (and that cute little mini-mouse) and toy soldiers
start to appear. And then the boy-sized nutcracker doll returns. And then the mice battle
the toy soldiers, rout them, and appear to kill the nutcracker doll. But Clara throws her
shoe at the Mouse King, killing him and saving the nutcracker doll, who in Clara’s dream
promptly comes to life as the Nutcracker Boy. And then they’re suddenly outdoors. And
it starts to snow. Which is real cool. And as it starts to snow, Clara plays with her young
Nutcracker Boy (good-natured roughhousing) – because they’re ‘really’ just kids and
that’s all she ‘really’ knows how to do with a boy friend (as opposed to a boyfriend).
Eventually, the fun snow turns into this frigid blizzard from which Drosselmeyer rescues
the couple and sends them off to the Kingdom of the Sweets. But before that, after
sliding and falling in the snow, Clara looks into her Nutcracker Boy’s eyes, and dreams
of herself and the Nutcracker Boy grown up, with the grown-up Clara and the grown-up
Nutcracker Prince being In Love and dancing to choreography created for her by a
celebrated Russian choreographer.

Conceptually, this scene is skillfully done. But it can also be annoyingly uneven if you
think about it (which, when watching The Nutcracker, is not usually a good thing to do).
Although the dance that Ratmansky has created for the Harlequin and Columbine is
dazzling, the dance for the Recruit and Canteen Keeper (“Canteen Keeper”?) is more
pedestrian. Granny is adorably ditzy (someone should recruit Betty White to dance the
role). But, as in the kitchen scene, there’s too much dancing in sync. The children move
as a unit; they even have a collective tantrum. But children don’t act collectively, or
move collectively – particularly when they’re supposed to be in hyper gift-getting mode.
It doesn’t ring true. Wouldn’t it have made more sense, with just as much impact, to have
the kids stamp their feet sequentially (alpha child doing it first, followed immediately,
but sequentially, by the other kids)?

But all these perceived problems can be overlooked as one gets used to the piece (which
is what happened with me). The ‘snow’ scene, however, I found somewhat more
problematic – although I suspect I’ll get used to it too.

There is no question that the choreography that Ratmansky has created for the
Snowflakes is marvelously inventive. The Snowflake ballerinas move collectively, in
small ‘flurries,’ and individually, as real snowflakes seem to do. And once they hit the
ground, each Snowflake appears to spread out on top of whatever is below it, just
like ‘real’ snowflakes. Ratmansky's conception of the Snowflakes hitting the ground,
then gently rising up a bit, and then finally coming to rest is flat-out brilliant and is
executed to perfection by the Snowflake corps, and the result is an unforgettable image.

But this isn’t the kind of beautiful snow scene of other Nutcracker productions. This
snowfall turns into a blizzard that scares Clara with its intensity, and from which Clara
must be rescued. Interesting idea. But at times I felt like I was watching a gaggle of arctic
Willis (as in Giselle). And why was it necessary to again scare Clara and then rescue her?

The Kingdom of the Sweets in this production is a gated community separated from the
rest of the world, and it’s less a place of ‘sweets,’ as in candy, than ‘sweets,’ as in sweet-
tempered people. [The program notes also title this scene “The Land of the Sugar Plum
Fairy,” which, for this production, is a much better description.] Although, with a few
exceptions, the divertissements are not particularly memorable, the scene is beautifully
conceived and executed.

It appears that this Land rarely gets visitors, but visitors are extravagantly welcomed,
and, when the residents are tipped off in advance (as is the case here), they are eagerly

awaited. Indeed, as the scene opens, the residents appear to be rehearsing for the
presentations they’ll make for the new arrivals. And the brief image of the ‘in-house’
Flowers peering through the kingdom gates hoping to get a first glimpse of the
anticipated visitors, with only their ‘faces’ visible as if catching the morning light, is cute
and innovative and for an instant takes your breath away. Lighting designer Jennifer
Tipton, who with this production again proves that she’s renowned for a reason, created
this enchantment.

I disliked Ratmansky’s Arabian Dance on first viewing. It looks more Indian or Egyptian
than Arabian. And there’s this bare-chested and bald male harem owner who looks like
Mr. Clean. Or maybe he’s the local slave hunk. And there are four harem girls who take
turns either throwing themselves at him or trying to keep the other girls away from him.
But Mr. Clean pushes them away to be Alone, so he can Think without having to suffer
the indignity of being their boy toy. What happened to good old fashioned lechery?
Where’s Stephanie Saland or Lourdes Lopez? What’s left for the guy in the audience
who somehow managed to stay awake through Act I to drool over? Don’t we get to have
a fantasy too? I didn’t think I could ever forgive Ratmansky. But by that evening’s
official premiere, I stopped complaining, allowed myself to absorb and revel in the
scene’s humor (much of it aimed at the audience’s expectations), and I loved it. It’s
Balanchine’s “Coffee” turned inside out and skewered, and it’s hilarious. [And there are
four harem girls, so it’s not a total loss.]

With his Waltz for the Flowers, Ratmansky turns what might have been a routine set
piece into a fabulously inventive dance for pink carnation-like Flowers and preening
Bees. The dance is very creative choreographically and conceptually, and it’s also fun to
watch. And as the dance ends with images of each Flower being sequentially lifted by
one of the Bees and then gently tossed to another Bee, the genuinely (as opposed to
dutifully) thrilled audience bursts into applause. At every performance.

Ratmansky’s choreography for the final dream dance – the pas de deux for the Clara
Princess and the Nutcracker Prince (which in other productions is performed by the
Sugar Plum Fairy and her escort) – initially appeared to this viewer as unnecessarily
retro. That is, it seemed to be too driven by its classical framework. But after repeated
viewing I now see it as a gloriously thrilling and exuberantly romantic visualization of a
little girl’s dream – from flying through the air on her prince’s strong wings
(accomplished by the prince’s jaw-dropping one legged dead weight lift of Princess Clara
into the air), to Clara’s ultimate wish-fulfillment – getting engaged to, and then marrying,
her Prince.

At times Ratmansky injects humorous interludes, but it’s not ‘funny’ – it’s heartwarming.
The choreography expresses the emotions of a young teenaged girl not the way that the
choreographer thinks they should be, but the way Clara thinks they should be. So there’s
a certain intended immaturity and naivete in the emotional display and the steps that
convey it. Ratmansky has even echoed some of the movements that Clara is allowed to
dance earlier in the piece in the choreography he has created for grown-up Clara. The
recognition that certain of the steps danced by Princess Clara in the pas de deux had been
danced earlier in the piece by young Clara, comes as a startling revelation of just how
creative and complex Ratmansky’s choreography for this production is.

But all this falls apart if the performances don’t match, or aren’t seen as conveying,
Ratmansky’s vision. Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg were a magnificent Clara
Princess and Nutcracker Prince in the piece’s official premiere performance, and they
were better able to convey the relationship between young Clara and the Nutcracker Boy
and the grown-ups than did Yuriko Kajiya and Alexandre Hammoudi were in the final
preview (but this may have resulted from my failure to recognize Ratmansky’s intent,
and consequently the manifestation of that intent through the performances).

But as magnificent as Ms. Murphy and Mr. Hallberg were, ‘magnificent’ is not the best
image to take away from performances in this piece. It shouldn’t be seen as being the
Princess Clara and Nutcracker Prince show. It’s not about them. It’s about Clara and her
dream of them. Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes danced Clara’s vision of her grown-
up self and her prince perfectly. Ms. Part was Clara’s dream self; and Mr. Gomes was
Clara’s dream of her grown-up prince. Combined with their exceptional execution, theirs
was the most successful of the performances I saw, and their performances allowed me to
see much of what I’d previously missed of Ratmansky’s vision.

But it was Maria Riccetto and Daniil Simkin’s performances that took my breath away.
Ms. Riccetto was not dancing a magnificent Princess Clara, or even Clara’s vision of
herself as a grown-up. From the moment she appeared on stage, Ms. Riccetto was Clara
as a grown-up. [Mr. Siimkin didn’t need to act the part – he was the Nutcracker Boy as a
grown up in large part because he looked like Nutcracker Boy as Nutcracker Prince.] The
two of them gave a truly magical performance. [That I’m still gushing over yesterday’s
performances by Ms. Part and Mr. Gomes, and Ms. Riccetto and Mr. Siimkin, after
having endured six hours stuck in a blizzard, speaks volumes.]

But ultimately this Nutcracker production is dependent on young Clara (and to a slightly

lesser extent the Nutcracker Boy) to work. Together with the peripatetic little mouse,
these young dancers make the piece live. [Clara is on stage, dancing and acting (not just
watching) for nearly the entire performance.] They are not simply attractive children;
they are all highly competent performers who danced, and acted, as if they’ve been doing
it all their lives. I understand that much of their accomplishment must be attributable to
the obviously superb training they receive at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the
attention they receive from the Children’s Ballet Mistresses Johanna Butow and Kate
Lydon, and preparation from the ABT artistic team, but as good as such preparation must
have been, it can only do so much. There’s a great deal of natural talent here.

Although I’m tempted to comment on each young dancer’s performance quality, singling
out one more than another at this point seems unnecessarily unfair. Suffice it to say that
each of them, to a greater or lesser extent (and particularly each of the Claras), exhibited
non-stop energy and effervescence, multi-faceted characterizations, and the ability to
create and transmit a stage persona that does not seem possible for anyone so young to
pull off. In Thursday afternoon’s preview performance, Lauren Ann Bonfiglio’s
portrayed Clara, accompanied by Kai Monroe’s Nutcracker Boy. At the official world
premiere opening that evening, Clara was Catherine Hurlin, and Tyler Maloney her
Nutcracker Boy. In yesterday afternoon’s performance, Mikaela Kelly took over the role
of Clara, escorted by Theodore Elliman as the Nutcracker Boy, and yesterday evening,
Clara was danced by Athena Petrizzo, and her Nutcracker Boy was Philip Perez. And the
Little Mouse was danced by Raju Sawak in the afternoon performances and Justin
Souriau-Levine in the evenings.

So, all in all, and although I still would love to be able to see the Baryshnikov Nutcracker
again, the Ratmansky Nutcracker is interesting, different, and like the set in Clara’s
dream, it grows on you. Maybe the problems I observed on first viewing arose from the
fact that no matter how saccharine and stodgy legacy Nutcrackers may be, they establish
a certain comfort level. Creating a new version requires both its creator and its audience
to crack a few venerable old nuts.

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