Every work of art is rooted in the time, place, and social climate of its making. The most powerful and durable creations transcend these specifics. In the 1816 story that spawned dozens of Nutcracker ballets, E.T.A. Hoffmann evokes a psychological milieu that has proved well-nigh universal. The Christmastide celebrations in which he sets his vivid account of a girl child’s sexual awakening are merely a convenience, offering an atmosphere loaded with hectic excitements and the assembly of family and friends who are naturally the main characters in anyone’s personal psychodrama.
New York’s current “rival” Nutcrackers—George Balanchine’s 1954 version for the New York City Ballet (at the New York State Theater through January 5) and Mark Morris’s 1991 The Hard Nut for his own company (at BAM December 17 through 22)—emphasize the yuletide festivities, no doubt partly for commercial reasons. Still, each choreographer recognizes the delicate balance Hoffmann proposed between gemütlichkeit and the darker regions of the erotic, the phantasmal, and the demonic. The Balanchine production, influenced by Lev Ivanov’s 1892 original for the Maryinsky, retains the disturbing elements as an important minor theme, while emphasizing the radiant, charming, and infinitely well mannered bourgeois dream of domestic happiness. (The specifics of the idyll in this version, it should be noted, may feel alien to nonwhites, non-Christians, and the non-affluent.) Beginning with the scatological implication he gives to his Hoffmann-derived title, Morris sardonically maligns Norman Rockwell-like family values. This attitude, typical of the choreographer’s mocking response to cant, unfortunately restricts aspects of the imagination. It undermines the Romantic yearning for perfection and squelches the profoundly macabre. So Morris’s Nut may leave you feeling Grinch-ish—or at least reluctant to offer it to a child as a winter-solstice treat.