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New York City Ballet

George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'

by Jerry Hochman

December 6 and 14, 2011 -- Koch Theater, New York and Live From Lincoln Center

As I watched “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’” for the umpteenth times – in the audience at the David H. Koch Theater at last Tuesday evening’s performance, and again last night from within two feet of my freshly-cleaned television screen as New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker became the latest of PBS’s ‘Live From Lincoln Center’ productions – I was reminded, for the umpteenth time, of how important a live audience is in performing arts. No matter how worthwhile it is (and ‘Live from Lincoln Center’ may be more important than any single live performance if for no other reason than because of the huge audience it reaches), the feeling of a performance is different when the audience and the artists are breathing the same air. It’s the synergy.

What brought this to mind was the recognition that the live house was as much a star of the Tuesday evening performance as the dancers themselves. Well, not quite. But Tuesday’s house was alive and responsive and captivated – and not just because a significant percentage was pre-teen: it was also a very knowledgeable New York City ballet audience. Through the TV screen, and depending on the camera angle (which unfortunately was not always in the right place at the right time last night), one can see the choreographic brilliance, the magical staging, the children’s faces (particularly in Act I), and the superb dancing. But without the mutual exchange of energy created as the dancers and the audience respond to each other, and without feeling the electricity that this interaction generates, something is missing. And unless you’re a very unusual viewer, you don’t have the opportunity to join in that rarest of all NYCB experiences, a standing ovation, in front of your TV screen.

But whether live in its house, or live in yours, seeing this NYCB Nutcracker production is a highly anticipated annual ritual, an iconic tradition for dancers and their audiences that entertains, and in the process enlightens, children of all ages. More than just being a cash cow, since its creation in 1954 this production has become a growth medium for breeding and nurturing enthusiasm for the performing arts in general and for ballet in particular, as well as a cultural reference point. It is plum pudding for the soul.

“George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’” keeps it simple: it’s a version that children can understand and easily follow and that is visually enchanting; but it’s less intellectually stimulating, and therefore less interesting (at least to this viewer), than was Mikhail Baryshnikov’s version for American Ballet Theatre (which is still available on DVD), or Alexei Ratmansky’s current production for ABT (which is now on view at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). There’s little of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s dark original story, of a coming-of-age awakening, or of a young girl’s dream of what her future may be.

But its simplicity is deceptive. In the Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve party, for example, every inch of the stage overflows with frenetic albeit orchestrated action. The children who populate the piece by the dozens act like children (except they’re extraordinarily talented young ballet dancers from the School of American Ballet), and they move naturally, without any indication of forced choreographic conformity. And the transition to, and exposition of, Marie’s dream is, still, a miraculous example of stagecraft (including, of course, the legendary Christmas tree on steroids).

As wonderfully creative as the staging is, even more important is that the dancers, the adult dancers (and many of the young dancers as well), add nuances that keep the performances exciting and fresh for themselves as well as for adults who have seen The Nutcracker umpteen times. Adam Hendrickson’s Drosselmeier at both performances was distinctively charming and sufficiently mysterious, Craig Hall and Daniel Ulbricht’s Candy Cane (on Tuesday and last night, respectively) were athletically exuberant, and Rebecca Krohn’s Coffee, at Tuesday’s performance, was appropriately seductive [as I’ve noted previously, Ms. Krohn has the ability to dance sensuously without trying, and to light fires without seeming to know she’s doing it.] Teresa Reichlen, who performed the role last night, danced the same steps and looked breathtaking doing so, as she always does, but seemed more detached and unable to connect – but this may have been the result of TV distance. Claire Abraham was a delightfully sparkling and spunky Marie at Tuesday’s performance, and Fiona Brennan’s Marie last night added a quality of precocious sophistication to the role. Both Jeremy Wong and Colby Clark showed youthful danseur elegance in their roles as Drosselmeier’s nephew/the Nutcracker/the Little Prince at Tuesday’s and last night’s performances, respectively.

But aside from the Christmas tree, the Candyland-like Land of the Sweets set [in case it no longer exists, Candyland was a boardgame I remember from my childhood, and Roeben Ter-Arutunian’s set makes me feel as if I’d walked into the game’s box], and Balanchine’s wonderfully complex and visually stunning choreography for the ‘Snowflakes’, which are understandable focal points for both children and wide-eyed adults, this version of The Nutcracker is anchored by the Sugarplum Fairy and Dewdrop, and I doubt that I’ve seen better performances of either role than were delivered, respectively, by Jennie Somogyi and Ashley Bouder.

I haven’t had many opportunities to see Ms. Somogyi dance of late. That’s my loss. Her Sugarplum Fairy at Tuesday evening’s performance was a model of clarity and control, of nuance and timing, which added immeasurably to the impact of the choreography that Balanchine created, converting steps into clearly conveyed characterization. This is as it should be – but one rarely sees it done so well. Although he has less to do, Jared Angle was a superb partner, adding conviction and strength to what could be a cardboard role. [At last night’s TV performance in the same roles, Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz seemed more distant, but, again, this may have been a result of the changed medium and perspective.]

And then there’s Ms. Bouder. At both of the performances I saw she was a dancing dynamo, cutting through Balanchine’s non-stop choreography like a diamond through glass. She moved so quickly and crisply, and with such boundless energy (pausing every once in a while to add punctuation to the choreographed phrasing and variety to her presentation – and perhaps to tease the audience into thinking that she needed to catch her breath), that I grew tired just watching her.

Ms. Somogyi and Ms. Bouder are perfect examples of what I meant by the dancers keeping their performances fresh and exciting for themselves as well as for the audience. Both have been members of the company, and principals, for many years. Yet they danced as if their reputations depended on it, with personal nuances that made the characters and the steps their own, demonstrating in the process that dance as a performing art involves more than executing steps perfectly: it also requires the ability to create and convey a moving image and a stage personality sufficient to energize an audience, and to be energized in return.

During intermission at last night’s performance, the TV audience was treated to interviews with some of the dancers, one of whom was little Ms. Brennan. When asked by Chelsea Clinton what she did differently this year than she did last year, when she first danced the role of Marie, ten year old Ms. Brennan said that this year she wouldn’t just try to do the steps perfectly – she’d try to make the steps her own. Exactly! Whether instinctive or the product of training, it is this quality – the desire, and the ability, to make every performance personal and unique – that sparks the energy, that creates the electricity, that leads to that rare standing ovation, and that makes every performance of The Nutcracker special – even when danced, or seen, for the umpteenth time.

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