After seeing three versions of The Nutcracker in one week—George Balanchine’s great spectacle for the New York City Ballet (at Lincoln Center through January 5), Mark Morris’s tart/sweet The Hard Nut at BAM, and Francis Patrelle’s kid-fest, The Yorkville Nutcracker, at the Kaye Playhouse—I ought to be sated on Christmas eye candy. Instead, I’m intrigued all over again by the charms of a ballet that was not a howling success in 1892 St. Petersburg, when Lev Ivanov choreographed it according to Marius Petipa’s plan and Ivan Vsevolozhsky’s scenario. As Director of the Imperial Theaters, Vsevolozhsky knew he had to quell the underlying darkness that tinges E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale to create a delectable entertainment.
Spectators accept the resultant inconsistencies and flaws in logic, and the unconvincing blend of fantasy and reality. We try to make the ballet mean what we want it to mean. “Oh,” we say, “the ‘Kingdom of the Sweets’ must have been Marie’s (or Clara’s) dream.” The fact that the principal dancers, the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier, don’t appear until the final moments of the ballet doesn’t bother us as much as it did St. Petersburg balletomanes. We see the glorious pas de deux that ends Balanchine’s version as a lesson in gracious adult manners for Marie and her Nutcracker Prince, abetted by the heroic quality of Tchaikovsky’s opening strains for the duet—music to make clouds pass and heavenly rays shine through.
We seldom pause to wonder why a frilly little girl like Marie would prefer a white-bearded wooden nutcracker to her dolly (Patrelle’s equivalent of the mysterious donor Dr. Drosselmeier even takes her doll away before giving her the new toy—as if to say, “Grow up! This will lead you to adventure”). Perhaps if we knew, as did the readers of Hoffman’s story, that the Nutcracker was originally a prince transformed by the evil mouse king and his mother, and that his victory over the mice signaled his release from a long spell, the comical battle and its aftermath might strike a deeper chord. Drosselmeier often vanishes from the second-act fantasy that he presumably engineered. And how does the ballet really end, anyway? Does the child Marie take the little prince back to her parents’ Biedermeier parlor and say, “Look who I met last night, and can he sleep in my room?”
Various choreographers have tried various tactics. Balanchine didn’t worry about plot inconsistencies. He created a marvelous Christmas party with tender interchanges between adults and children in both acting and dance passages. He made some charming variations for dancing comestibles, a lovely ballet of whirling snowflakes, and the ravishing pas de deux. The most magical moment for me, however—the one that induces an unaccountable lump in my throat—is the growing of the Christmas tree: The real becomes not just magical but supernaturally beautiful, invoking not just the power of one sorcerer, but the power of nature and dreams.
At the performance I saw, Wendy Whelan was a marvelously gracious and emotionally supple Sugarplum and Nicolaj Hübbe her noble Cavalier. The children—Flora Wildes (Marie), Ghaleb Kayali (her brother Fritz), and Tyler Gurfein (Nutcracker/Nephew)—comported themselves with grace and assurance. Ashley Bouder was having an off night, but her bright, bounding Dewdrop is still one to be reckoned with. Adam Hendrickson aged himself into an elegant, subtly sinister Drosselmeier. Jared Angle leaped through Candy Cane’s exploits with wonderful verve and buoyancy, and Aesha Ash was a sinuous Coffee. There were other fine performances, but the corps often looked merely correct. It’s disappointing that in our major company, two out of four Marzipan Shepherdesses look as if they’ve been impaled on a carrot.
The Yorkville Nutcracker attempts to link the acts. The story is handsomely set in New York in 1895, and the guests who attend a party for the new mayor at Gracie Mansion are foreign diplomats and their children. They show off their native costumes and a few steps in the first act, and dream versions of their dances in the second. Drosselmeier (here Uncle Noah Wheaton, acted with flair by Donald Paradise) remains avuncular in Act II, and the Nutcracker Prince turns out to be Mary’s brother, undergoing a transformation that bodes well for sibling relations.
There are a lot of student dancers of all sizes in this production, drawn from Ballet Academy East, the School of American Ballet, and Studio Maestro. The lobby buzzes with such alerts as “Nancy is the lead reindeer; you may not recognize her, but she’s the smallest one.” Patrelle makes creative use of fairly basic steps (waltzy balancés and tours jetés loom large), but slips in plenty of difficulties for those who can cope and gives guest artists, like lovely Jenifer Ringer and James Fayette of NYCB, a full gamut of pas de deux pyrotechnics (a bit awkward musically at times). This modest Nutcracker, performed to taped music and designed by Gillian Bradshaw Smith, has many charms—notably a skating party for Currier-and-Ives teenage girls on a Central Park pond with the Dakota looming in the distance—and it’s nice to see young dancers, once kids in the party scene, take over important roles; Anthony Carr capered nimbly as a windup Yellowstone Kelly, and Daria Rose Foner danced Dewdrop with radiant graciousness.
Morris’s The Hard Nut makes Drosselmeier (terrifically played by Rob Besserer) the hero of a tale he tells to the feverish Marie, and his Act II world travels in search of the elusive hard nut occasion tongue-in-cheek national dances (the French all mince on pointe; the Russians—in Martin Pakledinaz’s witty costumes—are fast-footed human bundles of ribbons). Besserer is also given impresario Serge Diaghilev’s streak of white hair, but although his duet with his nephew may contain an in-joke about the relationship between Diaghilev and his protégé Vaslav Nijinsky, it’s also a lesson in tender behavior. The story still has loose ends best not questioned. But the production—too long absent from BAM—is a delight. Here the sweetness of its final moments contrasts with the sleazy boisterousness of its 1970s party—all adults except for Marie and her brother. You can have fun just watching the sideline activity: Marjorie Folkman getting drunk, Morris getting drunker, Julie Worden (Marie’s sister Louise) getting horny, John Heginbotham (Mrs. Stahlbaum) coping with hostess nerves, Kraig Patterson (the Housekeeper) tottering around in black pointe shoes. In another cross-dressing role, June Omura cleverly plays Fritz as not only bratty but in a constant state of rage. Tiny Lauren Grant is delightful as Marie. Although I miss the veer between excited optimism and disappointment that Clarice Marshall brought to the first-act party (“This is supposed to be marvelous. What’s happening?”), she radiates joy in the final pas de deux with David Leventhal, which is more about rushing together and kissing than showing off steps.
The kissing comes when they’re finally left alone. One of the beauties of Morris’s initially flippant, joke-filled work, in addition to the multigendered dances for energetically drifting Snowflakes and lush Flowers, is that everyone in the ballet works to bring these two together; they are lifted by hordes of Chinese dancers and rats and soldiers and snowflakes and flowers and more, pouring onstage like waves of love to wash them into each other’s arms.