Never mind my analytical observations, the Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker is still an immediate pleasure.
The Nutcracker, staged by the Boston Ballet at Boston Opera House, Boston, MA. through December 31.
By Marcia B. Siegel
Sunday afternoon at the Opera House brought out scads of little girls and little boys in their party clothes, trying to be well-behaved. They were offered paper crowns in the lobby, and duly bought the trinkets available at intermission. Inside the theater, they were taken down the aisle to inspect the orchestra pit. At their seats they maneuvered to see over the heads of the larger patrons in front of them. I couldn’t tell how they liked the performance because I was intent on it myself.
The occasion was the annual Nutcracker ritual at Boston Ballet. Perhaps there’s no way to talk about a ballet that’s a favorite in hundreds of communities unless you distinguish what separates your home-town version from the others. Mikko Nissinen’s production is in its fifth season. It veers a little into novelty but sticks to the traditional story line, with the main elements intact: the first-act Christmas party, the tree that magically grows to giant size, the battle between the mice and the toy soldiers, and the snowstorm. These key elements are what keep the Nutcracker in the canon of favorite old-time ballets, no matter what frills and updates are applied to it.
Nissinen’s Nutcracker begins with a street scene. Various characters pass in front of the curtain: Clara (Elise Beauchemin) and the mysterious Drosselmeyer (Paulo Arrais), and some other less fortunate persons we’ll never see again. Whose point of view does this represent? Clara and her prim little friends hardly seem apt to identify with these buskers and beggars. I guess this scene is meant to give a realistic back story to what is essentially a dream journey, and we’re not supposed to notice any dramaturgical inconsistency.
Among hundreds of reworked versions, the only real Nutcracker, for me, that of George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet, opens on a drop curtain with a painted snowy village and a starry sky, encouraging us simply to listen to the overture, and perhaps engage in our own dreaming. Then we see the two main child characters, Clara/Marie and her brother Fritz, waiting outside the parlor door as their parents get ready for the party. A scrim shows us what’s going on inside as the kids eagerly peek through a keyhole.
Through Drosselmeyer’s magical gift of a toy nutcracker, Clara wafts off in the night to Act Two’s land of dancing snowflakes and exotic strangers. But first, there’s the party, with decorous dances, boys and girls tussling over presents, and Drosselmeyer’s surprise gift of three life-size dolls. (Harlequin, Lawrence Rines; a Ballerina Doll, Dalay Parrondo; and a Bear, Mamuka Kikalishvili) In Clara’s dream the nutcracker defends her against a band of marauding mice, then, à la Nissinen, he turns into a grown-up prince who escorts her to his kingdom.
They get there on two means of transportation. Since it’s snowing, they need a sleigh, but once they’re greeted by the Snow Queen, a cloud drops from heaven to take them to fairyland. Drosselmeyer is there, and escorts Clara to a special throne, where she can watch a series of classical and “character” dances.
Visions in tutus twirling on their toes not only have turned countless little girls into would-be ballerinas. These colorful solos and group dances reinstate the demands of classical training, now that contemporary ballets slur over the hardest steps. Over the five weeks of Nutcrackers with alternating casts, Boston Ballet can demonstrate its depth of talent.
At the first of last Sunday’s two matinees, Ashley Ellis danced the Sugar Plum Fairy, partnered by the Nutcracker Prince. Lasha Khozashvili stepped into the role at the last minute due to the indisposition of Eris Nezha. In Tchaikovsky’s famous celesta variation, Ellis amplified her fast, pinpoint footwork with soft and almost languid arms. In contrast, Seo Hye Han was a vivacious Dew Drop, leading the Waltz of the Flowers. The big dancing in Nissinen’s Act One is assigned to a Snow Queen and her partner. Kathleen Breen Combes, returning from maternity leave, was supported sturdily by Sabi Varga in the adagio variation.
The second act is traditionally called the Kingdom of the Sweets, but years ago the New York City Ballet production gave in to nutrition-conscious viewers and added fruits to the caloric content of its décor. Boston’s second act does away with the sweets altogether. It’s called the Nutcracker Prince’s Kingdom, and the divertissements are no longer tasty treats like Tea, Coffee and Hot Chocolate, but now appear as Chinese, Arabian, and Spanish. The Russian dance in New York City Ballet’s production is called Candy Cane. George Balanchine restored the hoop dance he performed himself in St. Petersburg as a young dancer. Boston’s Russian dance (for Kikalishvili, Samivel Evans and Alexander Maryianowski) is a pseudo-Trepak, as called for in the music.
In keeping with the 19th century ballet’s love of theatricalized exotica, dubbed “ethno-fantasy” by dance historian Jennifer Fisher in her provocative book Nutcracker Nation, these divertissements allude to various genres of foreign dances but don’t actually replicate real dances. I wondered if it was political correctness that made these variations so bland and un-ethnic, and, yes, un-sexy.
The Boston version adds cutenesses to what’s already entertaining: mischievous lambs in the Pastorale (formerly known as the Marzipan Shepherdess), twirling umbrellas in the background of Tea. Some of his interpolations merely seem to be making opportunities for the Clara to perform. She dances a few measures with the little Polichinelles who tumble out from under the voluminous skirts of Mother Ginger (Graham Johns).
Regular box-office tweaks and updates are meant to keep the production from getting stale, but what that means is often making the scene busy and hard to follow. Something that looks like an Energizer Bunny appears in the middle of the first-act party. At one point it gets chased by a gingerbread cookie. The roly-poly Bear does lumbering steps that once were given to a Toy Soldier.
But never mind my analytical observations, the Nutcracker is still an immediate pleasure. Boston Ballet’s production has detailed sets and costumes by Robert Perdziola, lighting by Mikki Kunttu, and a beautiful snowstorm that looks like it could deliver a few inches an hour. I admit I’m a sucker for a snowstorm. Not to mention the wonderful score, conducted by Beatrice Jona Affron. No matter how many times I’ve seen this ballet, Tchaikovsky’s tiny, reedy march that begins the overture still triggers my anticipation.
Selected other Nutcrackers around town this year:
José Mateo Ballet at the Cutler Majestic theater, 2, 3, and 4 December, and the Strand Theater in Dorchester, 8-19 December
Tony Williams’s Urban Nutcracker, John Hancock Hall, 16-31 December
Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker, Orpheum Theater, 4 December at 3 p.m.
Commonwealth Ballet‘s The Nutcracker, Casey Theatre, Regis College, Dec. 9-11
Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at The Boston Phoenix. She is a contributing editor for The Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims—The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.