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American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker
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Author:  balletomaniac [ Thu Dec 26, 2013 9:59 am ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

American Ballet Theatre
Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, New York

“The Nutcracker”
December 18, 19

-- by Jerry Hochman

As a follow-up to my earlier review, I saw two additional performances of Alexei Ratmansky’s version of “The Nutcracker’” presented by American Ballet Theatre, on December 18 and 19. Like the ballet itself, these performances were a mixed bag: some were excellent, others less so.

On Wednesday, Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews assumed the roles of Princess Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. I am not aware of previous occasions where Ms. Kajiya and Mr. Matthews had been stage partners previously in New York – though I do know of such pairings previously outside the New York area. Regardless, based on Wednesday’s performance, it was long overdue. The two danced remarkably well, each bringing rich characterization to their roles as well as top notch execution in all respects. Ms Kajiya’s almost-but-not-quite over-the-top portrayal of Princess Clara as dreamed by young Clara was a delightful surprise. Mr. Matthews executed superbly, with an abundance of confidence to accompany his abundant technical prowess. But most importantly, they worked well together, and were secure with each other. The critical running shoulder lifts in Act I, and the dead weight one-armed overhead sitting lift (‘bicycle lift’) in Act II, were executed to perfection. Simply put, their performances were among the finest I’ve seen in these roles since Mr. Ratmansky’s version of the ballet premiered in 2010, and Mr. Matthews now ranks as one of ABT’s most capable and confident partners.

Thursday’s performance was another matter. Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak are an ideal stage pair, and watching them together is seeing young Clara’s dream as one might expect it to look. But at this performance, this appearance of natural stage compatibility was undermined by partnering problems. Whatever the reason (inadequate skill or strength by Mr. Gorak, or a lack of confidence in his partnering ability by Ms. Lane), the result was substandard connections at critical points. In Act I, the first running shoulder lift failed, and the second was abandoned. In Act II, Mr. Gorak managed to successfully hoist Ms. Lane overhead, but it took obvious effort – and when he carried her downstage as she was wobbling precariously on his hand ten feet or so above the stage floor, it looked like a disaster waiting to happen. It didn’t – but one could see the justifiable fear in Ms. Lane’s eyes.

Both dancers ‘covered’ these problems reasonably well. If you didn’t know that the first shoulder lift was botched, and the second abandoned, you may not have noticed. And there is a measure of appropriate audience appreciation when the Prince successfully lifts Princess Clara over his head, even when the quality is subpar. But these problems, which it appears both dancers had anticipated, shouldn’t happen, and have inevitable ramifications: although the balance of their performance was well-executed, with Ms. Lane dancing a particularly fine solo during the pas de deux, they appeared more tentative and less effusive than they should have for these roles. Mr. Gorak, a highly promising danseur, was appropriately attentive to Ms. Lane throughout. So unless an undisclosed injury was the problem’s source (as it was when they debuted in these roles a couple of years ago – a performance that I saw but did not review), the deficiency is one of strength and confidence, not self-absorption, and can be fixed. For Ms. Lane, however, the situation is both dire and incomprehensible. The inability of the company to provide perhaps its tiniest ballerina with a suitable partner so she can dance reasonably free from fear is, at best, perplexing.

Among the other roles, there are some small roles that tend to fade into the woodwork – the combined role of the Butler (Act I) and Majordomo (Act II) is one of them. But proving once again that there are no small roles, on Thursday, Luis Ribagorda took this assignment to another level. Where others execute the combined role mechanically, giving it an air of insignificance, Mr. Ribagorda was a perfect comic foil, adding brief ‘throwaway’ gestures that made the Butler appear concurrently officious and endearing, and converting the wooden role of the Majordomo into one of power and decisiveness, cushioned by a touch of self-deprecation appropriate for a second banana. In the Arabian dance, at Wednesday’s performance James Whiteside repeated his opening night performance earlier this season. Looking like an Ed Hardy version of Mr. Clean, Mr. Whiteside executed well but lacked the character of the put-upon slave master who wants to be alone but craves the attention from his harem girls. On Thursday, Patrick Ogle assumed the role, executing less crisply but appearing more appropriately engaged. Wednesday’s four harem girls (Nicola Curry, April Giangeruso, Nicole Graniero, and Jennifer Whalen) displayed an enticing combination of sensuality, frustrated interest, and humor; but Elina Miettinen, who joined three of the other four at Thursday’s performance, added extraordinarily fine-tuned comic timing to her crystalline execution. Cassandra Trenary and Zhiyao Zhang were Wednesday’s Columbine and Harlequin, and Gemma Bond and Arron Scott assumed the roles on Thursday. Each pair executed well. Courtney Lavine was a promising Nanny/Sugar Plum Fairy at Wednesday’s performance (Zhong-Jing Fang reprised the combined role on Thursday), and Roman Zhurbin did a fine job as Drosselmeyer at both performances.

At each of these performances the roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Boy were assumed by Victoria Arrea and Kent Andrews, both students at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. Each performed very well, with Ms. Arrea delivering a more endearingly understated Clara than I’ve previously seen, and young Mr. Andrews showing considerable potential. I particularly liked the way he interacted with Ms. Arrea, displaying sincere interest and concern for her safety during scary moments. At both performances, Justin Souriau-Levine and Gregor Gillen repeated their roles as the Little Mouse and Fritz, and the other JKO students who populated the Stahlbaum home in Act I, and who were Little Fairies, Pages, or Polichinelles in Act II, were delightful. Finally, David LaMarche should be recognized for conducting the ABT Orchestra at both performances with particular, and appropriate, sensitivity to developments on stage.

edited 12/28 to correct a few glaring typos

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Sun Mar 16, 2014 6:50 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

ABT's "Nutcracker," with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, will end its relationship with the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the conclusion of its December 2014 performance run. ABT will present the work at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa California for 14 performances in December 2015. Michael Cooper reports for the New York Times.

NY Times

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Mon Mar 17, 2014 7:13 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

In the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Ng reports on ABT's presentation of Ratmansky's "The Nutcracker" at Segerstrom Center beginning in 2015.

LA Times

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Mon Dec 15, 2014 1:44 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

In the New York Times, Brian Seibert reviews the December 12, 2014 opening performance of Alexei Ratmansky's "The Nutcracker" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

NY Times

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Mon Dec 15, 2014 4:19 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

Brian Seibert reviews multiple casts of Alexei Ratmansky's "The Nutcracker" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the New York Times.

NY Times

Author:  balletomaniac [ Tue Dec 16, 2014 4:20 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

American Ballet Theatre
Brooklyn Academy of Music – Howard Gilman Opera House
Brooklyn, New York

December 12, 13 (M), 14 (M & E)
“The Nutcracker”

-- by Jerry Hochman

A year ago, in the course of reviewing some American Ballet Theatre performances of Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Nutcracker” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I observed with some alarm that ticket sales appeared to be quite slow – at least as compared to the New York City Ballet blockbuster version. Shortly thereafter, ABT announced that it was abandoning Brooklyn, and New York, for what it presumably hoped would be greener financial pastures – with considerably less competition – in Southern California, where I suppose any production that includes dancing snowflakes might be considered a supportable annual curiosity.

It’s unfortunate that this area will be losing this Nutcracker, since audiences for the limited number of performances offered this season have been abundant and enthusiastic, and because there’s reason to believe that publicity that emphasizes this version's heart rather than its sparkle might ultimately encourage audiences to see a Nutcracker that’s a bit different from what they might expect.

This isn’t a perfect production, whatever a perfect production may be, and it’s somewhat disappointing that Mr. Ratmansky has not made changes to improve it. Children do not throw temper tantrums in unison – the repeated stomping in time with the music makes the collective tantrums in Act I look like some strangely regimented juvenile dance. Similarly, in the opening scene – intelligently set in the Stahlbaum’s 'food production area' [for some inexplicable reason this site's software will not permit the use of the word '*******'], the cook and maids, instead of moving somewhat naturally and independently, perform another ritualized and stylized dance that looks less funny than forced. All this makes the Act I of that other major Nutcracker production in Manhattan look much more natural, even though its movement qualities are probably more strictly prescribed.

Further, the character of Drosselmeyer is too weird. His introduction in the first scene is bizarre (he enters the 'food production area' with the Nutcracker Boy, all other stage action stops, and then exits into the wings, exchanging the Boy for the Doll in the process), and the prolonged eeriness surrounding his entry in the second scene (“who’s that bad guy, mommy” – I overheard one scared child say to his mother) is overly, and unnecessarily, sinister. And the use of a ‘living’ Nutcracker Boy who transforms into a Nutcracker Doll and back again without explanation, is confusing, and not worth the time it takes to understand or explain what might be happening. Even assuming that the Nutcracker Boy is the Nutcracker Doll in young Clara’s imagination (fueled by Drosselmeyer’s magical web), the images are inconsistently applied. The transition scene – the growing Christmas Tree and household furniture – just looks cheap, as does the mini-pyrotechnic display during the ‘battle’ scene that manages to work only 50% of the time (the ‘cannon’, an obvious and cheesy-looking inverted grandfather clock, failed to fire in two of the four performances I attended).

But these stylistic and technical misfires are part of what gives this Nutcracker character, and they help make everything that does work look as wonderful as it does. The introduction of the mice in the introductory scene immediately makes Clara’s dream/nightmare not just the product of a child’s hyperactive imagination, but a part of the environment that gives her fantasy a factual basis. And the conception of the Little Mouse is ingenious – every time that character is on stage, it provides an electric charge that both tickles the funny-bone and warms the heart, and, more importantly, instantly engages everyone in the audience. The Snowflake scene, which I initially hated because I thought it was needlessly frightening, I soon came to recognize for the choreographic intelligence it demonstrates. Rather than having ballerinas dance exquisitely through a scene that could be anywhere anytime but for sets and costumes, this production features ballerinas who move like snowflakes, with the appearance of unpatterned weightlessness as they’re buffeted by wind, appropriately both beautiful and menacing. And the final image of the snowflake/ballerinas falling on their backs to positions slightly above the stage floor, rising a bit, and then falling flat, is exactly what snowflakes in the real physical world do. This is profound choreographic artistry.

Other images, though more fleeting, are equally brilliant. Seeing the denizens of the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy peer through its gated boundary, with parts of their faces, arms and legs gently illuminated as if their bodies were catching the first rays of a rising sun, is stunning, as is the simplicity of the staging of the final scene as young Clara, in a matter of seconds, visually previews a young girl’s emergence into adolescence. The divertissement for the Flowers and Bees is splendidly crafted, and although the execution this year seemed less precise than I recall previously (at one performance one of the bees ignominiously failed to catch one of the flower/ballerinas flipped to him), it grows in visual excitement to match the incrementally developing score, and rarely fails to generate audience applause. And many of the other ‘character’ dances (Harlequin and Columbine, Tea, Arabian, Russian) are fine examples of that genre – and they offset the few (Spanish, Nutcracker Sisters) that lack imagination.

But what makes this Nutcracker is Clara, both the young girl and the vision she has of herself as a grown-up. I must admit that in the production’s premiere performance, having the adult Clara act childlike appeared both silly and strange. But later in that opening season I watched as Veronika Part and then Maria Riccetto nailed their portrayals, and then it all worked. This isn’t just a child’s fantasy of a sugary fairyland, but Clara’s dream of her idealized self as a grown-up seen through the prism of a child’s experiences. Soup to nuts, it all makes sense – from her dream of saving the Nutcracker Boy, to his pledging himself to her – and then the two of playing in the snow like the children they are, to his protecting her from marauding mice and swirling snow trying to keep her safe and warm, to her imagining what it would be like for her imagined prince to ask her to marry him. And I dare anyone seeing this production not to choke back tears when young Clara first imagines herself as an adult princess, and we see that imagined image in the form of Clara, the Princess accompanied by the imagined image of her grown-up Nutcracker Prince, and the two pairs proceed to dance in tandem, matching steps and dreams moment to moment in real dream-within-a-dream time. It’s perfect.

It helps to have a cast that performs Mr. Ratmansky’s vision perfectly as well, and each of the four casts I saw did. This season features two casts of young dancers performing young Clara and the Nutcracker Boy: Emilie Trauchessec and Kent Andrews, who danced at the Friday and Sunday evening performances, and Annie Hinako Levy and Duncan McIlwaine, who assumed the roles on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Each brought special qualities to their performances that made them not just entertaining, but real. As good as the adult dancers were, this production could not have worked as well as it did had these young dancers not been as good as they were.

The four pairs of Princess Claras and Nutcracker Princes I saw, with rare nitpicky exceptions, danced beautifully and brilliantly. On opening night, Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside assumed the roles. I saw Ms. Murphy dance this role at the production’s world premiere in 2010, and in addition to her usual impeccable technique, her characterization is now crystal clear, and no longer looks affected. I do not have Mr. Ratmansky’s steps committed to memory, but her execution displayed Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography at its most complex. Mr. Whiteside was a bit too stiff for my taste, but he partnered Ms. Murphy well, and loosened up as the final grand pas de deux progressed.

On Saturday afternoon, Sarah Lane and Joseph Gorak reprised their roles, and this time their performances went off without a hitch. For two consecutive years I’ve watched as Mr. Gorak was unable to partner her satisfactorily, which I subsequently came to understand was the product of injuries. Apparently he’s now at 100%, and the difference produced a quality performance all around. To me, an ideal Clara is less Clara acting like a ballerina than Clara as young Clara’s image of what she imagines she will be as an adult (albeit as an adult princess). Ms. Lane’s performance fits that image ideally. And what distinguishes Ms. Lane and Mr. Gorak from others who dance these roles is the delicacy and grace that they provide. As I have observed when they’re paired in other dances, their stage personas complement each other; it’s not just a matter of getting the partnering and timing right or looking appropriate for the role (which to me is a significant factor), it’s appearing to mesh. To me (and with the possible exception of Marcelo Gomes partnering anyone), ABT currently has no better stage pairing.

Sunday’s performances marked two debuts as Clara: Stella Abrera in the afternoon, and Misty Copeland in the evening. Both performed superlatively.

Ms. Abrera, partnered by Alexander Hammoudi, seemed too tentative during their brief appearance in Act I. But they soared in Act II’s pas de deux. Ms. Abrera combined finesse with appropriate, tempered attack; each step immaculate. And in the pas de deux’s critical ‘bicycle lift’, the execution was not just accomplished, but seamless. There was no appearance of preparation; no milli-second spent gathering strength – Ms. Abrera sailed onto Mr. Hammoudi’s arms, and he lifted her over his head, all in one motion. Very impressive – echoing the spectacular execution by Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews last year. My only criticism of their performance was Mr. Hammoudi’s solo. All four of the Nutcracker Princes ‘cheated’ to some extent during their solo jump turns, each preparatory hop narrowing the circumference of the final turn. But Mr. Hammoudi didn’t begin his final jump in each series until his back was nearly parallel to the audience.

Ms. Copeland’s Clara was the most aggressive-looking of the four, but not inappropriately so. And although she didn’t show the same degrees of characterization as Ms. Murphy or Ms. Lane (like her Coppelia, her facial expression didn’t vary much from broad smile to intense concentration), considering that this was her debut, it was quite a remarkable performance – nuance may come with time. And whenever it seemed that Ms. Copeland was going to power her execution into the stratosphere, her partner, Eric Tamm, toned it down, with lifts that noticeably converted Ms. Copeland’s aggressiveness into delicacy and polish (except for that bicycle lift, which was impressively powerful). But it appeared that a price was paid for Mr. Tamm’s terrific partnering – on his own, his solo looked somewhat weaker than that of the other Nutcracker Princes.

Among the other roles, Courtney Lavine has grown into her roles as the Nanny/Sugar Plum Fairy, adding nicely-defined touches during the Sunday afternoon performance, and she and Patrick Frenette danced a fine Canteen Keeper and Recruit on Saturday afternoon. Gemma Bond and Luciana Paris, way over-qualified to perform as ‘The Maids’, ad-libbed brilliantly at Friday’s performance, providing shades of character beyond what less experienced dancers may have felt comfortable doing. Luis Ribagorda reprised his knock-out turn as the Butler on Saturday afternoon, and Ms. Copeland and Craig Salstein danced a superb Columbine and Harlequin at the same performance, as did Cassandra Trenary and Zhiyao Zhang on Sunday evening. Skylar Brandt, a little firecracker, danced an exceptional Chinese dance and Canteen Keeper on Sunday evening, and the Russian trio of Mr. Salstein, Blaine Hoven, and Arron Scott were outstandingly hilarious on Friday and Sunday evening. Thomas Forster was a particularly powerful and convincing Mouse King on Friday and Sunday evening.

Among the young dancers in supporting roles, Gregor Gillen and Sebastyan Sentypal did fine jobs alternating as Fritz. Seth Koffler was an exuberant Little Mouse on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, but Justin Souriau-Levine, who has danced this role since the ballet’s premiere performance, owns it.

“The Nutcracker” is one of those rare productions in which ABT encourages its budding young dancers, even those who have not reached the level of ‘apprentice’, to participate and gain experience. These dancers, perhaps because of the novelty and excitement of it all, add a measure of noticeable enthusiasm to the performance as a whole. And the opportunity to watch dancers who have appeared as young Clara advance to dance ‘adult’ roles is priceless. Catherine Hurlin, this production’s first Clara, danced as a Snowflake a season or two later, and now is a promising member of the corps; and this season Lauren Bonfiglio, also one of the first season’s Claras and now one of the company’s apprentices, danced this year in Snowflake and Flowers. And on Sunday afternoon’s performance, I noticed a very young-looking Flower with a warm, electric smile, obviously thrilled to be where she was and doing what she was doing. She was Adelaide Clauss – who danced young Clara just last year. For a balletomaniac who attends performances all too frequently, these are among the things you live to see.

I may be wrong, but although Southern Californians may flock to this Nutcracker for the novelty of it, or to introduce their children to culture, or to see pseudo snow, they may never appreciate it for its simple virtues and its heart. Like the memory of gathering by the fireplace on a cold winter’s night, this is a Nutcracker to cherish. It will be missed.

Author:  balletomaniac [ Thu Dec 18, 2014 8:02 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

Although I did not expect to attend another ABT Nutcracker this year, I did so again last night. Long story.

I’m writing this note to memorialize, and commend, the two young dancers, Claudia Schuman and Seth Koffler, who assumed the roles of young Clara and the Nutcracker Boy at that performance.

To my knowledge, ABT scheduled two casts for these roles to carry it through the brief run at BAM this season. Although I’m not privy to all the details, my understanding is that both of the Nutcracker Boys became quite ill quite quickly, and could not perform last night. To maintain a Clara and Nutcracker Boy of comparable size, it was necessary to replace both roles. On very short notice, and with little advance rehearsal time, these two young dancers, who appeared to be considerably younger (and each about a foot shorter) than either of the young dancers in the scheduled casts, stepped up and the performance proceeded last night without a hitch (except for one wayward Nutcracker Sister top hat - a costume accessory that should have been scrapped long ago).

Young Ms. Shuman and Mr. Koffler deserve not only congratulations on jobs well done (which the enthusiastic – and largely unknowing - audience provided), but the Company’s grateful appreciation.

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Fri Dec 19, 2014 1:13 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

Robert Greskovic reviews the Friday, December 12, 2014 performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for the Wall Street Journal.

Wall Street Journal

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Sat Dec 05, 2015 8:24 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

In the Orange County Register, Jean Lenihan previews Alexei Ratmansky's The Nutcracker, December 10-20, 2015 at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, California.

OC Register

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Mon Dec 14, 2015 11:49 am ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

In the Los Angeles Times, Laura Bleiberg reviews the Thursday, December 10, 2015 performance of Alexei Ratmansky's The Nutcracker.

LA Times

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Mon Dec 14, 2015 12:36 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker

Steven Woodruff reviews the December 10, 2015 performance of Alexei Ratmansky's The Nutcracker for SeeDance.


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