As it turns out the performance was at the Batiment de Forces Motrices, an old power station (turbine hall) that has been turned into a theatre. On the banks of the River Rhone, it's an unusual but clever site for dance, music and theatre.
The building which dates from the 19th century, has been gutted, but the soaring windows, wooden ceiling beams and much of the old machinary has been left in place. The stage itself has been literally tucked into one end of the building, leaving the majority of the space as a large open hall. It's the ultimate intermission location - quirky, airy and always space to move.
For "Casse-Noisette", the set designer Paul Cox was comissioned to create an exhibit for the lobby. He came up with what can be described as giant, edged table full of styrofoam balls (snowballs!). It sounds silly, but it provided the kids (big and little) with lots of fun throwing the balls back and forth, and bouncing them off the table. What better way to keep kids from being bored during intermission and to allow them to blow off steam.
The stage itself is nicely proportioned, though the seating is not ideal for dance. The rake is fine, but the seats go out instead of up, so in Row 26, I was just level with the stage. And there were plenty of rows behind and above me. That may work for music, but it's shame to have so much of the audience so far from the stage.
But on to the ballet...
It's different, it's unique and it has wonderful moments. In a world full of saccharine sweet, cotton-candy clone "Nutcrackers", Benjamin Millepied has dared to break the mold and the result is something that is special. And I'm glad he got the chance to do it here in Geneva, as I think it would have been chewed to bits by the press in New York or London, merely because it is what it is, and not because of its merits or the lack thereof.
The company is small, at just 24 members, with a repertory that focuses on more modern, innovative works. So it's no surprise that Millepied's choreography has a very clear modern core - pointe shoes only appear a few time, with most dance in character shoes of one sort or another. His background in both modern and African dance (Millepied started dance when he was living in Senegal) are apparent in the choreography, which tends to be low to the ground, eschewing many high lifts and stretches the body into shapes that aren't always classical.
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 by Drosselmeyer coming out to write on a desk - as he writes, line drawings appear on the white curtain/screen. These drawings are very much those of children - a house with two windows, and intermingled into the scene are the titles of the ballet.
When the curtain rises, the scene is anything but Victorian. The era is 21st century Ikean - a big yellow house framed by red pylons (meant to be gondola or cable car towers?), with the stage floor covered in white marley to mimic snow. The furniture is spartan and simple, the tree a big, green cone and the presents multicolored boxes of all shapes and sizes. It at first seems decoratively underwhelming, but the music and the dance and the acting make it a homey scene.
The party guests arrive by ski, snowshoe and foot. It's more an extended family party, but none the less full of energy. Clara, and Drosselmeyer's nephew are played by children, the rest are all company members. Nina Cachelin was an adorable Clara, is a white top and long, fifties-flouncy red skirt, while Lou Perret was an uber serious nephew and Nutcracker. All the costunes are bright and simple.
In his production, Millepied shows his knowledge of Balanchine's version, but has fun with some of the original themes. The columbine and harlequin dolls are reminiscent of Balanchine's, but here the columbine doll is full of trouble - dancing off to one side and getting stuck against a present, kicking it continually, or getting 'stuck' in turns, so she has to be rescued before she chaines into a wall.
One of the highlights was a tap-dance for Fritz - here played with success by an adult, Roger Van der Poel. It's not something that one would normally think of, but some of the Act 1 music is great for tap and Van der Poel is a wonderful tapper (and a convincing brat).
In one of the cleverest twists to the traditional plot, the Nutracker doll is frog-prince. For one must kiss a frog to find a prince!
Millepied is at his most succesful in the group numbers, all done in soft ballet shoes or character shoes. In Act 1, the adults are getting increasingly drunk, and the dances have a fun (but G-rated) cheek.
Though there is good use of trap doors (for the dolls), especially when Drosselmayer sets his hat down and then proceeds to pull the entire dinner out of it, clearly expensive special effects were out of Millepied's reach. So instead of the long scenes where Clara falls asleep, he has created an extended pas de deux for her parents. Though at times it seems a bit frenetically at odds with the music, the choreography is fascinating - and Celine Cassone and Bruno Roy were excellent. Cleary they are at home in the more modern idiom, and they are sinuous, powerful and electric. The choreography is full of low, twisting lifts, and slides along the floor.
To replace the scene of the growing tree, Millepied uses another of the line drawings. This time Drosselmeyer draws a tiny triange, then without lifting the pen, continues to draw larger and larger triangles. Not only does this mimic the shape of an enlarging tree, but the concentric trianges create a almost three dimensional gateway, and the swooping of the line as the music reaches its crescendo is suprisingly powerful. I was not convinced as the effect began, but by the final triangle I was sucked right it.
At the crescendo, the curtain rises to reveal the house in giant. The battle between the mice and the soldiers is fun, with the frog prince slaying the mouse king. The one problematic point was having no clear transformation of toy Nutcracker to living doll. That's part of the magic and it was bit lost here.
But by far the highlight of the ballet was the waltz of the snowflakes - complete with 8 female and 8 male snowflakes, all in white tights, long white skirts and white tops. And of course bucketloads of fake snow. By using coed snowflakes, Millepied was able to incorporate lifts and partnering. Both men and women were in soft slippers (unfortunately the stage was very 'loud', which was unfortunate), the choreography utilizing the strenghts of both the men and women - female delicacy and precison, male power and speed. 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 children's choir of the music conservatory provided the voices for the choral section - so wonderful to hear so many voices live.
In act two, we had the divertissiments. Again, the costumes were colorful, but simple - a children's coloring book view of the world - big splashes of color, if not always in the expected color.
On the giant screen, the house is drawn again, this time upside down and in a snow globe. When the curtain rise, we see the same yellow house, upside down - for this dream land is not normal indeed. Clara and her Prince sit on the ceiling (now the floor) their feet resting on a giant globe.
In general, the divertissiments were great fun, but looked under-rehearsed. Luc Bernard and Ilias Ziragachi were excellent in the Chinese dance, and Fernanda Barbosa and Violaine Roth were wonderful in the Arabian dance. Here shed of the un-natural toes shoes, the Arabian dance was full of mirror images moves, and earthy, full explored movements.
Totally expected, and totally over the top was the Mother Ginger in wife-beater and big puffy skirt. No pretentions of make-up here, just a big dame with 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 really waltz, with four men in blue, with green wellies and yellow hats (vaguely Dutchish) and four women in bright colored skirts, green tops and flower pot hats.
The real weak spot of the second act was unfortunately the grand pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier. The choreography was weak - Millepied seems much more at home in the slightly less classical - compared to the rest of the ballet and it looked out of place. The dancers too looked less at home in the more pure classsical, and it didn't help that Cecile Robin Prevallee and Grant Aris were badly mistmatched - she barely reached his shoulders, and she's a compact powerhouse, while he's tall and lanky.
Compared to the power and energy the dancers showed in the other dancing, this pas de deux looked just ordinary and the flat choreography did not help. Aris has impressive flexibility, and his developpes were very high and held, yet he is very leggy, giving him an awkward look in the white tights and tunic.
Their final pose gave way, and they ended on the floor. However, the ballet ended on a high point, with all the divertissiments returning for one last festive dance, including an pas de deux for Drosselmeyer and Mother Ginger.
All in all, it was a most unexpected and delightful night of dance. Bravo bravo bravo. And I hope the company sticks with it and works through some of kinks. It might be a production that would not work elsewhere, but it's certainly one that deserves to be seen!