American Ballet Theater’s Original New Nutcracker

More photos coming soon. This one (of Gillian Murphy and Catherine Hurlin as the two versions of Clara) is taken from culture.wnyc.org.

Last night was the official opening of ABT’s much awaited new Ratmansky-choreographed Nutcracker at BAM. I loved almost every single second of it. I’ve only seen about six different versions of this ballet, but this one to me seems most original. It’s very entertaining, very humorous at points, and can somehow maintain the attentions of small children while being clever and witty – and beautiful – for adults. It’s very theatrical and it’s not as “dancy” as the one I just saw from the Bolshoi (Grigorovich’s version)- there’s more non-balletic jumping and playing around in Act I at the party, but there’s plenty of beautifully choreographed classical ballet during the grown Clara and Nutcracker Prince pas de deux and the ensemble snow scene and waltz of the flowers.

It opens with the cooks and maids in the kitchen preparing Christmas dinner. They’re going about their merry preparations when suddenly their space is invaded by mice. The mice completely take over, chase out the cooks, jump up on the tables and grab for the hanging meats. Adorable and hilarious. There’s one very cutely mischievous little mouse who appears throughout.

Then the party scene happens and Drosselmeyer (a non-dance role here) presents the children with two sets of life-sized dolls. The dancing was very good, but there were no sharp, stunted staccato movements as in the Bolshoi’s, so the dancers didn’t look like real dolls to me. I loved the costumes for Harlequin and Columbine though. They looked the most commedia dell’arte that I’ve seen. All costumes were brilliant – one of the most excellent things about ABT’s production. They, and the equally brilliant sets, were made by Richard Hudson, of Lion King fame.

When the dolls are ordered to return to their boxes, the children do a group dance that looks more like fitful stomping than anything balletic. But it’s still musical and evocative and cute, and it got a lot of laughs. The nutcracker that Drosselmeyer then gives Clara (danced brilliantly by Catherine Hurlin) is half-doll, half-human. He’s danced by a boy (Tyler Maloney) but he has a full nutcracker head, so he can’t do as much as the Bolshoi’s human nutcracker doll – his movements are much more limited. Once Clara’s dream begins, the boy removes his doll head before escorting her off to the Kingdom of the Sweets. I have to say, I really liked the boy who danced Clara’s bratty brother, Fritz – Kai Monroe. He was very entertaining, did a good job with both the acting and the dancing (high jumps!), and I think he will be one to watch for.

The Battle scene between the mice and the nutcracker and his soldiers was good, and, again, the costume for the mouse king (Thomas Forster) was fantabulous. I couldn’t even count the heads he had there were so many. I think of all battle scenes, I like Balanchine’s the best. I love how a mouse will scurry ominously across the floor right in time with a flute chord. Then the mice begin to gather and organize right in time with the flute ensemble so that it seems like the mice are talking. And Balanchine’s battle scene seems the most theatrical. Balanchine’s growing tree is also magnificent. Here, the tree only grows a bit, but soon they multiply and trees begin to eat up the wings, which was also spectacular.

The snow scene was really beautiful and this is where we first meet the grown-up Clara and her nutcracker prince (last night they were Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg, but there are many casts – see James Wolcott’s review of a preview starring Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes here). Their first pas de deux is a beautiful waltz, and it’s made very clear that this is Clara’s grown-up vision of herself and her prince. The child Clara and Nutcracker boy waltz alongside Gillian and David until the classical ballet steps takes over, and the children stop dancing and gaze longingly at their grown-up selves as they finish the pas de deux. There’s a really beautiful Viennese waltz-type of lift where he spins around with her perched on his shoulders.

The Kingdom of the Sweets is really different from other versions. The “Sugar Plum Fairy” or “Nanny” as she is alternately called here, is not a dance role, but more of an escort through this kind of tour of It’s a Small World. She dons an absolutely gorgeous ancient Indian costume, as does her male companion. The dancer representatives from various countries are not dolls; they are real, but most of the dances are very different. The Arabians, for example, are danced by one man (last night, Sascha Radetsky) and four women, and the women are all cutely chasing the one very wickedly flirtatious man. It reminded me a bit of Kevin McKenzie’s von Rothbart deviously flirting with all the court women at the beginning of the Black Swan pas de deux. At the end of this dance, though, the tables are turned and the women come into their own and no longer need him. Now of course, he’s not very happy about that. It’s great fun and I loved this dance the best.

The Russians (Mikhail Ilyin, Craig Salstein and Arron Scott) were more folksy than bravura ballet, which was fine, because they later did a circle of barrel turns as their part of the final ensemble dance.

And we see Mother Ginger again (or who, as a child, I called The Fat Lady with the big skirt). I haven’t seen her since Balanchine! And there’s an added element of hilarity here involving the mischievous little mouse from the kitchen!

The only dance I didn’t really care for was the Chinese. As I’d expected, these roles were danced by Daniil Simkin and Sarah Lane. But Ratmansky didn’t really use them for what they are known for and the dance is very tame compared to this dance in the other Nut versions. I really wanted to see Daniil go flying around the stage in those crazy million times-overrotated turning leaps that he’s known for. There weren’t even any high jumps. It’s just that I look to the Russian and Chinese dances for the bravura parts and it’s okay if they’re lacking in one dance, but not both! The Chinese weren’t as goofily portrayed though as in other versions, so I appreciated that.

And I loved the waltz of the flowers. Included here are some very charming bees, but they’re not used in a slapstick way at all, which I thought they would be when I initially saw them. They dance is very classical and there’s a beautiful part where the four male bees toss the red and pink-clad ballerinas into each others’ arms in a circular rotation. That received a lot of audience applause.

And then is the ending pas de deux again between Gillian and David. I’d written before, when I saw an excerpt at the Guggenheim, that it looked more modern lyrical than classical, but last night it looked very classical to me. Ratmansky used my favorite lift from the Grigorovich Bolshoi version where the prince lifts and holds Clara up by one lower leg and carries her all around stage like that. The solo variations were nice. David didn’t seem to have the height he normally does on his jetes (I was told later at dinner though, by a dancer – not from ABT – that that choreography was crazy hard) but he made up for it in a series of spins. I know in ballet they’re called turns, but he was going so fast they looked more like ice-skating spins to me!

The only thing I found bothersome was the acoustics in the BAM opera house. Maybe I’ve just never heard live music played there but it just seemed like the orchestra was playing so softly. The sounds of the toe shoe-clad feet and the sounds of children coughing dominated.

Oh, one final thing: when David Koch, who financed a good part of the production, gave his opening speech, he accidentally called Kevin McKenzie “Peter.” Got a lot of ooooohs from the audience. I couldn’t hear through the ooooohs what he said after that – I assume it was an apology – but whatever it was it elicited even more ooooooohs. Funny.

Overall it’s a brilliant new ballet, a very original new production. Definitely get out to BAM if you can! Go here for the rest of the schedule.

6 Comments

  1. Did you like this one more than the Bolshoi’s? You were raving about that one after you saw it.

    • I think I still liked the Bolshoi’s better. I like that there was more actual dancing and I liked the boy nutcracker’s dance better. I understand why Ratmansky did it this way though – by having school-age children (instead of professional dancers) dance the children’s roles it probably made it more children friendly. And this is a children’s ballet after all. And Ratmansky’s first ACT was theatrical, it just largely wasn’t ballet. And there were more spectacular lifts in the pas de deux of the Bolshoi version than in Ratmansky’s, which I appreciate. I did like Ratmansky’s sense of humor, with the little mouse, the mice in the kitchen, etc. And I like the Mother Ginger part, which is missing from the Bolshoi’s. I really want to see the Bolshoi’s live someday!

  2. As always, David Koch was entertaining with his oh-shucks speech that sounded unrehearsed despite note cards they he never seems to read right. His unusual sense of humor makes me think that the Peter comment may have been more playful than accidental – and a not-so-subtle reminder that he has money on more than one NYC ballet company.

    From the rear orchestra, the music was a little thin and akin to a recording.

    My chief complaint – the stage seemed small for the choreography. What did you think? I saw Sadler’s Wells do Sleeping Beauty at BAM in 1986. I do not recall feeling the same sense of constriction as I felt with the corps scenes of Nutcracker after intermission. The arm positions of the dancers seem to be have been adapted to fit the stage.

    Gillian and David were lovely partners, a fitting pair for a world premiere. The couple next to me were visiting from Dallas and had never been to a classical ballet performance. I assured them that they were starting at the absolute top.

    • Hi Steven – Yes, I think you were correct in your assurance to that couple! Yeah, I totally agree about the stage being too small. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a full ballet performance on the BAM stage but I think it words better for performances without elaborate sets and full ensemble, etc. It’s a shame they can’t have another venue but everything else seems to be taken for that time of year, unless they alternate with the Met opera like La Scala and POB do… Actually, I really wish they’d do that…

      I know people were disappointed with the tree not growing like the NYCB’s does but there’s no way they were going to be able to do that with that stage. I think they did as well as they could with what they had.

      Maybe Koch could build another opera house :)

      • Oh but interesting you say Sadler’s Wells did better with the constraints. Hmm… I haven’t ever seen another story ballet there so have nothing to compare it to.

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