Friday, December 24, 2010

American Ballet Theater's "The Nutcracker"

Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Ballet" has always been a big part of the experience of Christmas, at least in the affluent Western world . I know that many people nowadays (musicians, especially) look down on Tchaikovsky's music, and especially the music of this ballet, as treacly-sweet and nauseatingly popular. Even Tchaikovsky reportedly came to hate his own music. Tell that however to a wide-eyed kid for whom this music conjures a world of fantasy involving toy soldiers battling dastardly mice, a dashing nutcracker prince fighting a many-headed rat-king, a dreamy petit-bourgeouise girl, furniture that grow in size before your very eyes (including that Christmas Tree, of course) and various dance scenes that give inventive designers license to create fabulous costumes and scenery.

This was what I came for when I watched the American Ballet Theater's production of the Nutcracker at the Booklyn Academy of Music (affectionately known as BAM) on Dec 23, 2010 and I was not disappointed. The ballet was choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky of the Bolshoi Ballet and current artist-in-residence of ABT.

True, I had seen the movie based on the production of the Northwest Pacific Ballet featuring phantasmagoric and playful designs by Maurice Sendak (which I would have loved to have seen live), but watching a movie doesn't compare to enjoying an actual production onstage, in a jewel-box of a theater, with the attendant noises and shuffling of an excited and expectant audience. I had not seen the current production of Balanchine's very popular version at the New York Ballet because I refused to expend the $50 ticket minimum to see it. At $20, the ABT production was well within my budget. If I missed anything by not seeing the Balanchine I didn't know or cared because, by any standard, the staging by the ABT of this classic was, to my eyes and senses, absolutely superb.

The orchestra was a bit pared down, but hearing Tchaikovsky's introductory march in context gave me as good a set of goosebumps as if the New York Philharmonic or the Berlin Philharmonic was playing it.The first third of the first act of the ballet involved little dancing, just a lot of posing. There were hilarious slapstick actions by sneaky mice and unruly children, some grandstanding by put-upon adults and of course the entrance of the mysterious Drosselmeyer. For me the highlight of the first act was not the Christmas tree that grew in size (I heard the Balanchine one was more spectacular), but the dance of the snow-flakes, a performance of the corps de ballet that was as pure and sparkly as driven snow (which, naturally, was falling down on the stage).

The second act involved elaborations of the various scenarios in the suite to music so familiar one could whistle them in one's dream. My favorite was the pas-de-deux by Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes. A perfectly matched pair of really good looking dancers performing flawless pirouettes and what-have-you. My other favorite was the "Waltz of the Flowers"by the corps de ballet: fifteen or so girls in graduated pink-petal tulle dresses being romanced by four semi-realistic yellow and black bumblebees! They performed an incredibly acrobatic cross-hoisting of ballerinas that provoked wild applause from the audience at the end of the routine.

I sat beside two elderly ladies from Queens who had seen the Balanchine ballet and had grown rather weary of it ( it had been performed nonstop every December since the '80's). They were ready to see a new one. One lady told me she preferred this production. It was something new, she said, something different. Most of all, she said, it gave the children in the ballet more things to do.

Much later I overheard another lady at the lobby profess her disappointment at the production being too "neo-classical". She probably wanted more spectacular effects. Perhaps she should have seen "Spiderman"instead?

To me the ABT production was all about the dancing and the music, and on this count, it rated a 10 in my book. This was my first live Nutcracker, so I may be forgiven for my enthusiasm, but I will always judge other productions by this one, if I ever get a chance again to watch the Nutcracker in the future.

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