My Annual NYCB Holiday 'Cracker!

Everyone, ballet fan or not, has to see The Nutcracker at least once a holiday season, right! It’s a requirement. This ballet — particularly NYCB‘s Balanchine version (since that’s the only one I’ve seen in adulthood) — is always magic, especially after the party is over, Clara dozes off, and her little Nutcracker doll becomes a prince and whisks her off to the lands of live Snowflakes and dancing Sweets. I actually think the beginning, with all of the children and adults socializing, goes on for a bit too long; the ballet seems really to come alive after Clara’s dreams begin, the tree miraculously grows up through the ground and out through the roof, and the cute but threatening oversized mice fight with Nut’s army. And what fun those mice are when they squiggle out with their fat little bodies wreaking all kinds of mouse havoc. There was a very high-jumping one, which was very impressive to me, made me think, wow, that must be hard to do in that huge hoop of a costume! I have no idea who that high-jumper was, though, since there are a zillion names in the program and it wasn’t the Mouse King.

My Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier were legends Wendy Whelan and Damian Woetzel, both of them giving the perfect performance, as expected. Other favorite people and parts: Vincent Paradiso as the splendidly mechanical-limbed toy soldier come to life; Daniel Ulbricht as the high-jumping, fast-turning male part of the ‘Tea’ threesome; the always giggle-inducing Mother Ginger (ie: the fat lady with all the little ones hiding underneath her skirt), and oh my gosh, Kathryn Morgan as the ‘Marzipan Shepherdess’! I couldn’t figure out who she was at first. There was just this dulcet face shining out at me, commanding my attention. It wasn’t until I got home, looked in the program, and realized it belonged to her. Wow, she has Stage Presence! I saw her last year as Juliet, but I think because I wasn’t all that in love with that Romeo + Juliet production as a whole, I didn’t really notice what she was capable of then. I definitely will want to see her in more things this season. And why is it that Amar Ramasar (as king of the ‘hot chocolate’ people here) can dance smack in the middle of a vast group of people, all of them doing exactly the same steps, and I pick him out right away? Because he has charisma galore too, that’s why! I mean, there’s really no astounding athleticism or brilliant technique or difficult acting skills required for any of the roles in this ballet — it’s more of a children’s classic meant to charm and entertain — so you know if people jump out and grab you from hundreds of feet away, it’s because of something else. I predict that Amar and Kathryn will go far…

And of course the leads. Wendy was an expectedly charming S.Plum, and Damian, whom I am told doesn’t normally perform the role of her Cavalier, was sweet perfection. At one odd point, there was this crazy false fire alarm going off in the lobby and you could hear it a bit in the theater, and it kept going on and off. Well, we all thought it was finally off for good, but right as Damian began his solo, on it comes again. There were some huffs and puffs in the audience — mainly I think because we were all worried it was distracting the poor dancers — but the orchestra had started and it was time for him to dance and there was no turning back, so he just cutely shrugged his shoulders and smiled an “oh well” at us and began his variation. I love it when dancers can roll with the punches like that and even make a little joke out of them! Definitely the sign of experience. By the way, here’s a great video of Damian giving a lecture and demo about the history of ballet in the U.S. to an audience in Aspen, shortly before the Vail Festival, which he founded. If you have the time to watch — it’s a little over an hour long — it’s really informative. Be sure to watch the video clip of the Nicholas Brothers (occuring around the 7-minute mark) — whoa!

Anyway, back to the Nutcracker. My only quibble other than the too-long party scene is — and this may sound really idiotic — but does the Nutcracker / Prince have to be played by a little boy? I mean, when you’re small and you dream about your future knight in shining armor, it’s not the little kid next door, it’s the bigger badder teenage guy who seems so strong and manly and brilliant. I just think it would just be more interesting if an older guy, a very well-known dancer — say, Joaquin — could dance dramatically, stand up to that evil Mouse King for her, and sweep her off to her far away lands. Or does that sound perverted? In the movie he is played by Macaulay Culkin… My friend, Jonathan, thought Balanchine chose children to play all those parts because child viewers could better relate to their own. Maybe that’s true. I think adults can be pretty entertaining too though, regardless of audience age. Why did he use all children?

Speaking of bringing friends with you: there’s an interesting discussion on that subject on Apollinaire’s blog. This is the second time I’ve brought a non-dance friend with me to a classical ballet performance. All I have to say is thank the lord for Tchaikovsky! First time I brought a new-to-dance friend was to ABT‘s Swan Lake over the summer. I asked her what she thought. She thought for a while, then said very politely that Swan Lake probably wasn’t really the ballet that would make her a huge ballet fan, but she was definitely willing to try another. But she really enjoyed the evening, she quickly added, because of the brilliant music, which she said she knew well. Tonight, I asked Jonathan what he thought. It was cute, something sweet for kids, he said, we had great seats, it was a good holiday thing to do and he was always thankful for the opportunity to be exposed to something cultural. But what he really loved, he said several times (and this is someone who’s extremely quiet) was the music. He also really enjoyed a violin solo that I seem to have overlooked in the first section, so I know he wasn’t just humoring me. It does make sense that people attach to Tchaikovsky: he’s familiar, and in familiarity there’s comfort, which makes it easier to derive aesthetic pleasure.

Anyway, The Nutcracker is always a fun holiday classic. It’s showing at the State Theater through the end of the month. Go here for the schedule.

7 Comments

  1. How perceptive of you to recognize the “star quality” of Kathyrn Morgan! She is only 19 years old, has been in the company for less than a year, but whenever she dances, she simply lights up the stage. She was only officially accepted into the company last February, but already in the spring season, she danced not only Juliet but also the lead in Wheeldon’s Carousel. Now for the Nutcracker run, she has not only danced the Marzipan shepherdess (I saw her dance it on Dec. 7 and thought she was marvelous) but is also making her debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy this coming Saturday (Dec. 15 matinee) – the only corps girl to land that role thus far in the Nutcracker season. Yes, Katie is definitely destined for big things at NYCB. Try to come and see her this Saturday (if there are any tickets left!)

    Why did Balanchine use so many children in Nutcracker? Well, the explanation lies not only in the fact that it is a ballet about children, with special appeal to children, but also because he felt it was so important for children to get early performing experience on stage. Remember that he himself first discovered the real “magic” of ballet when as a young boy, he performed the role of Cupid in a performance of Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. He was at the time a student at the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg but at first was an indifferent student there, not having a real clue as to what was so great about ballet. It was only when he actually appeared on stage and experienced first hand the magic of a real performance did he begin to realize that this was to be his calling in life. He never forgot that and always tried to bring children into his ballets whenever and wherever it was appropriate.

    Your comment about your friends and their response to the Tchaikovsky music is also very interesting. No one valued music more than Balanchine – he was not only a great choreographer but also a serious and extremely talented musician. He also picked out great musical scores for his ballets and he used to say that if people came to the ballet and did not like a particular ballet, that was OK – they could always sit back in the theater, close their eyes and just enjoy the music! And that more or less (without the closed eyes, I would hope) is exactly what your friends did.

  2. Tonya, assuming that your friends are well-educated people in their late ’20s (or early ’30s, perhaps) who like their entertainment to, among other things, exercise their intellect, I think a triple bill at NYCB or ABT will be better for introducing them to ballet than the 19th century classics. Swan Lake and Nutcracker can be superficially enjoyed by everybody, but you need to be familiar with the language in order to read deeper, whereas the more contemporary ballets (and I’m including most of Balanchine here)speak a more familiar language to your average NYC lawyer…

  3. Oh you mentioned my favorite person–Tchaikovsky! I’ve been studying him ever since I was a little girl (I jokingly call myself the youngest living expert on his life)–I think I’ve read like five or six biographies and books with all of his letters, and study his scores when I have off-time.

    Suprisingly, “The Nutcracker” (1892) was the only score he liked! He thought his “Lake of Swans” as he called it, was awful, and was never really pleased with his other works. I think that’s so interesting, especially since “The Nutcracker” spins on almost every holiday commercial and the music is so familiar–just as your friends pointed out!

  4. As always, thanks for your thoughtful comment, Bob!

    GWTW, you’re right. Also, now that I think of it, that friend I invited with me to Nutcracker I had also invited to Forsythe’s “You Made Me A Monster” earlier this year (and, interestingly, Damian Woetzel spoke about that performance too in his video that I linked to, and he cited Forsythe as an important figure in “ballet” even though his work isn’t “ballet proper”). Jonathan found Monster bizarre, but intriguingly so, and I think overall he had a good time. I mean, I think he had an enjoyable time at Nutcracker too, but I do think that people under 40 are probably going to be more drawn to modern ballet.

    Ariel — YOU have to write the next biography :) You can be like Terry Teachout and write a manageable, accessible bio for people new to classical music and just discovering him!

  5. Tonya,

    One of the reasons I did not like the Balanchine Nutcracker was how he switched around the order of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score and added other stuff as he wanted! Sacrilegious! The violin solo you mention was not written for the Nutcracker; I’m not even sure who wrote that music, it may not have been Tchaikovsky. I think the celeste solo (Sugar Plum Fairy music) was placed somewhere random in the middle of the ballet as well, instead of its place among the Sugar Plum pas de deux variations. I was shocked and mad at Balanchine while I was sitting in the fourth ring watching the Nutcracker. I hate it when choreographers change the music to suit their choreographic needs. The dance should come inspired by the music, not the other way around.

    At the risk of being controversial, you might want to consider Tchaikovsky’s penchant for young boys (particularly his 12 year old nephew), it definitely gives the Nutcracker a different feel, doesn’t it?

    http://www.infopt.demon.co.uk/tchaikov.htm

  6. Thanks for that article, Jennifer — I finally had a chance to read it. It’s very interesting! It’s funny but I haven’t really seen another Nutcracker in so long, I’ve forgotten what the original is like…

  7. I just watched that video last night. Amazing! I want to see more.

    Selly

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