American Ballet Theatre
Brooklyn Academy of Music – Howard Gilman Opera House
Brooklyn, New York
December 12, 13 (M), 14 (M & E)
-- 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.