Round (Act) II
The second act of the Balanchine Nutcracker opens in the “Land of Sweets” with a corps of tiny angels encircling the Sugar Plum Fairy as she performs a solo to that famous pizzicato music. (I like to imagine that at every show, some Nutcracker neophyte in the audience is sitting up a little and realizing: “oh, Tetris!”) Alexei Ratmansky uses this celesta music as a solo for the grown up Clara as part of the grand pas de deux at the end of the ballet. His Act II begins with little fairies and pages flirting in the “Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” It was cute, but I much prefer the Balanchine approach in this instance because it gets right to some dancing. The Sugar Plum Fairy is the
In a sensible departure from most Nutcrackers, ABT’s Act II has nothing to do with sweets; they simply title the divertissements after the nationalities of the dances. At City Ballet we refer to the divertissements by their nationalities backstage but they are listed in the program as sweets, which I always thought was a bit silly. For aside from the Sugar Plum Fairy, there are only two actual comestibles on the menu: marzipan and candy canes. The majority of the divertissements represent liquids, with some toys and plant matter on the side: a dew drop, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, some polichinelles and flowers. Maybe “Land of Beverages” would be more apt!
My scoreboard for the divertissements runs thus: Spanish goes to NYCB because the costumes at ABT completely obscured the steps. (For some reason the costumes in their second act were lavish but the sets were paltry. They needed more of a Goldilocks meeting in the middle.) The Arabian dance I’d also give to NYCB, but that may just be because I love to dance it so much and I can’t be objective about it anymore. The ABT Arabian consisted of a man in a bald cap—very Yul Brynner in The Kind and I—with a harem of four women he couldn’t quite handle. It was funny and the audience laughed a lot. I really liked ABT’s acrobatic Chinese pas de deux. It seemed more dignified than our (dare I say dated?) version. The Russian/Candy Cane dance I’d say is a tie. I love the Balanchine version with the thrilling jumps through the hoop, but I also really enjoyed the folksy trio of Blaine Hoven, Craig Salstein, and Arron Scott at ABT. I grew up in awe of Elie Lazar’s solo trepak in the New Jersey Ballet Company’s Nutcracker, so this staging brought me back to my 11-year-old self. I find that Nutcracker preferences are largely shaped by memory (and especially nostalgia)—a point which is well made by Ratmansky in his production, as well as by Troy Schumacher in his recent guest post about this same dance!
The Marzipan dance—called the “Nutcracker’s sisters” at ABT—is the nadir of the second act no matter who choreographs it, it seems. I think the flashy yellow tights and the unconventional steps (deep squats in plié á la seconde, sissones in sequences of three and five counts against the music) at NYCB give Balanchine’s rendition the edge, but neither interpretation titillates. Both versions use five women, but at ABT the dancers were evenly ranked while at NYCB there is a soloist in pink and they all carry pan flutes. The ABT women were over-costumed again, with long dresses which hid their legs. When they came out for their dance the little boy next to me exclaimed: “not them again!” They had already danced a bit during the greetings at the top of the act, so the novelty had worn off a bit (ditto for the flowers). It was a shame the dance was a sleeper because these ladies were working hard: their choreography was quite challenging—and several of them danced the grand pas on other nights. One of them—Sarah Lane I think—was losing her hat during the performance I attended and the rest of the cast was cracking up. It was really funny and it helped the number.
The Mother Ginger/Polichinelle dance goes handily to ABT. The children’s choreography was intricate and unusual, and the crudity of the Little Mouse popping out from under the drag queen’s skirt was a hilarious shock. The bawdiness of the ABT mice made for a great through-line in the show—from slapping each other with sausages and humping the stew pot in the kitchen scene to the Richard Gere antics of the Little Mouse in Act II! I didn’t expect that in a kiddie show, but the whole audience loved it. The Waltz of the Flowers, on the other hand, is far better at NYCB. This is partially because of the tempo—we do it at least twice as fast which gives the piece more vim, but it is also because of the glamorous and electrifying Dewdrop role. The Karinska costume alone—the Dew is almost naked, but somehow it isn’t vulgar—could win the battle. ABT had four male bees instead of a Dewdrop, which was potentially very interesting but ended up being just ho-hum.
It was intriguing to me that Ratmansky used the Waltz of the Flowers music in the opposite way from Balanchine: his bees entered the stage mostly when the Dew Drop exits in our production. I thought it was very cool to see the music’s purposes flipped. In another sharp contrast, during the harp solo at the beginning of the Waltz Ratmansky had his Sugar Plum Fairy comically playing a fake harp on the side of the stage. Balanchine has his flowers make harp-like ripples with their bourré-ing feet along an undulating diagonal to this same music. I have to admit that the ABT flowers gave me some anxiety throughout the act. This was because there was no real set, so the flower corps acted as one. They sat on the sides of the stage to provide some structure and a pop of color up until the number right before theirs, when the rest of the characters who had just danced came out to take their places as living scenery. It made me cringe to think of the poor flowers quickly trying to shake out their stiff legs and re-warm up backstage before their dance!
The grand pas at ABT was technically very difficult and therefore quite exciting. Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside danced it all spectacularly well, save for an awkward transition into a torch lift which was understandable (these highest of one-handed lifts are fairly rare and very tricky). I liked that Ratmansky included the solo for the Cavalier; Balanchine and many others cut it. I had also never seen James Whiteside dance and I thought he was wonderful. He has the best hair-tossing skills I’ve seen since Damian Woetzel. Gillian Murphy was reliably secure in a solo full of odd turns and croisé diagonals, but at the big transition in the music she ran offstage and popped her head out from the wing in a cutesy way which I didn’t like. Ratmanksy breaks the fourth wall twice in his Nut, here and once with Drosselmeyer in Act I—a choice that took me out of the illusion each time.
The Balanchine grand pas does more with less. He makes running shoulder sits and overhead grand jeté lifts seem more dramatic than many of Ratmansky’s thornier moves just because of his theatrical musicality. The magical arabesque slide in our production—a trick assisted by the stagehands in the wings—is another great Balanchine piece of stagecraft that never fails to elicit applause. I also like the mint-green pancake tutu in our production better than the floppy (though much better for partnering) white demi-tutu at ABT. But the white tutu was a grown-up incarnation of the dress worn by the little Clara, and it reinforced the character-doubling effect which was probably my biggest problem with ABT’s Nutcracker. The ABT principals were so mature and polished in their dancing that I got tired of them pretending to be youngsters in love, repeatedly dancing behind their smaller “selves” to drive home the illusion. The finale music was used for a marriage proposal for this couple which was weirder yet. (The NYCB finale has the children flying away in a reindeer sleigh—a nod to Santa and commercialism?). In general, the ABT Nutcracker is more hormonally charged than ours. The NYCB Nut is more conventionally Christmassy.
Both Nuts have their merits, but I am naturally partial to Balanchine’s version. It is a more serious, grander manifestation. But I think that was one of Ratmansky’s main points. He was working against a lot of weighty tradition: 60 years of Balanchine’s Nut in NYC, the Petipa/Ivanov Nut of his Russian roots, the Grigorovich Nut from his Bolshoi tenure (those poor dancers perform the Nut until Januray 8th by the way!). Thus, he ended up doing somewhat of a commentary on all the others, and it is more comical than most. His is a Nut with a wink and a nod (like in those moments of breaking the fourth wall, and all the randy humor). I am sorry that it is transferring to the West Coast next year, but I am so glad that I finally got to see it. Stay tuned for a special guest post by one of my favorite dancers about her intensely personal Nutcracker journey!