Sunday, January 02, 2011


ABT and Ratmansky's Nutcracker

(Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

I am back in New York just in time to see the very last performance of the new Nutcracker with Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes in the leads. I wish very much I'd been able to see more casts, because this production and interpretation of the Tchaikovsky score and Nutcracker story was sheer magic and virtuosity.

First, Ratmansky proves he is an intensely musical choreographer. There's a moment early on in the first act when the happy, major key music slips into something that sounds vaguely sinister. As a child, I was always bothered by this musical section, and wondered what it meant. Ratmansky's answer is to show us mice and rats in the kitchen, a harbinger of things to come when Clara and her Nutcracker will face off against the Rat King. In moments like these--and there are many--you can feel a sensitive and musical mind at work, probing the music, and reinterpreting the story as necessary. And the reward for the audience is great because you too have the joy of hearing the music anew.

(Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

There is, for example, the much discussed "snow scene" in which Clara and the Prince start out laughing in the snow, only to discover that they are cold and that the snow, while beautiful, is also menacing. Balanchine die-hards have complained about this section on message boards as being "out of character". But if you listen to the music--really listen to the music--it does not have a purely "happy" quality to it; it sounds like snow. That is, the music is changeable, playful, and at times, dangerous. Ratmansky hears this, deliver the scene accordingly, and thus gives us the snow scene anew.

This reimagined snow scene does something else; it gives us a moment in which Clara and her Prince play and laugh--something we will see them do later as adults. It also gives them a further adventure. The Nutcracker can often feel static after the death of the Mouse King. Not so in this production--Clara and her prince continue on their journey. All does not simply come to an end because the Nutcracker has been transformed. It also cements the relationship between Clara and her Prince. They will protect each other and help each other from dangers other than the Mouse King; it tells us what their future will be.

There are numerous other moments like this--the point at which the children enter the Christmas party is another example. The pas de deux's which, not danced by children, take on the depth of adult emotion and love. Then there are other unexpected moments. The Arabian dance, always so serious and sexy that companies choose it as a set piece, is turned on its head with a male dancer who is *so* serious he can't decide which woman he loves best, thus losing them all.

Then there is the storytelling. I went on and on in an earlier post about my feelings that the Nutcracker is a romance; it's in the music. Ratmansky delivers us a romance, but preserves the early portion of the ballet for children, giving us the adult versions of the prince and Clara as "visions." For me, this compromise worked. In fact, it didn't feel like a compromise because we learn early on that this story is going to depend on a child's magical point of view. Ratmansky explains his decision in the Playbill that accompanied the performance; to paraphrase, he said something about how adults pretending to be children is never fully convincing.

Is it clumsy to have children "see" adult versions of themselves? Not when the choreography incorporates childlike motions, so we know we are seeing adults who are still tied to their childhood selves. In the production I saw, Xiomara Reyes laughed and smiled as her childlike self might have done, while simultaneously dancing with adult bravura and precision. At one moment, the choreography required her to become overcome with shyness and scamper offstage, only to re-enter and finish her combination. We don't lose sight of who she once was. In a way, it's a reminder to the audience that they too will have an adult and child version of themselves.

In writing, it's important to try to "teach" your audience how your story will be told early on, so they are adjusted and so the story will unfold naturally. Ratmansky does this, albeit via the medium that is dance. In most ballets the Nutcracker is introduced as a doll, who only becomes life-sized after midnight. Ratmansky neatly introduces the Nutcracker to the audience as a boy--because that's how Clara sees him. At various points in the Christmas party, Clara either interacts with the Nutcracker as a boy or a doll on the stage. But the direction is clear: to her, he is a boy and to the grownups, he is a doll. We, as the audience, get to see both. And this changeable, mutable quality, so much a part of childhood, sticks with the ballet until it is midnight, and the mice and the Nutcracker and the other dolls do battle.

Who are the other dolls? The ones who appear in Act 1--in the Balanchine version you know them as the soldier and the pretty dancing girl. These dolls appear throughout the first act, to try to protect the Nutcracker when he is injured by Fritz, and later, in the war against the Mice.

The overall effect of this production is one that is cohesive, the product of a singular vision and that is not simply a series of set pieces. I felt immersed in a world and as an audience member, I want to be immersed in a world. The theme of sweets and eating sweets starts from moment one, and carries on to the second half of the ballet in the Kingdom of the Sweets (which otherwise seems untethered). The mice appear early on and reappear and reappear (even at the end). It makes sense. Mice and sweets go together. And then there are the various lovely couplings in the Kingdom of the Sweets including flowers and bees.

(Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

Visually, the production was stunning--I loved the house askew, the entering and exiting through doors and the colors. But I also loved the precise and complex choreography. I would need to see this production again and again to dissect all the different steps--suffice it to say, Ratmansky seems to have never seen a turn, turn, turning-jump combination he didn't love. Ditto for every version of assemble known to man and woman. At one point, I worried for the bees, varying their turns and jumps and direction, so like a jazz dancer might. And the timing required for the corps section to at once stay together, but dance in their respective "groups" made for scenes that were beautiful, but constantly in motion. Each party guest had clearly received direction. At one point, I saw the butler flirt with a guest . . . only to be reprimanded by her husband. This drunken, slightly corrupt adult flirtation was in contrast to the sweet and cheerful romance of the flowers and bees in the second half of the show. And then there were the costumes--having danced with props, I don't know how Mistly Copeland and others managed to perform with those hats askew.

And then there were the dancers themselves. I loved the "leads"--Cornejo and Reyes. There was I think a slight slip in which Reyes seemed to lose her balance. Blink and you missed the tumble, though, as these pros continued to dance right through the performance. Cornejo is certainly one of the best dancers alive today, as he demonstrated. Everything he does is so fluid, effortless and just beautiful. It wasn't hard to imagine him as a prince. Reyes I've only seen dance a couple of times and it was a pleasure to see how radiant she can be in a role that requires girlishness and virtuosity.

This was not an easy ballet. The timing and the intricate steps give very little space for breathing. I'm thinking, for example, of how much takes place at the end of the kitchen scene, of how quickly we go from the mice, to Drosselmeier, to the start of the party. It's not a lot of bars and a great deal of information, which means choreography, must be delivered on time. Given the complexity of the ballet, I'm really impressed by the production and can't wait to see it again next year.

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