Although I very much enjoyed the evening, this was definitely my least favorite Ratmansky work to date. It was not at all bad, but it was uneven. The only other Ratmansky full-length I have seen is The Bright Stream, which I loved, so maybe I was setting the bar too high in my mind. Or maybe there’s a reason that Balanchine’s Nutcracker has become the gold standard—trademarked on the posters and all. Even though I much prefer the Balanchine version of the Nutcracker, there were several instances in which the ABT version had ours beat. I thought it would be fun to do a little City Ballet vs. ABT Nutcracker throwdown! Tis the season…?
Round (Act) I
A huge advantage goes to NYCB for the scrim that hangs during the overture to the ballet. We have an ornate bleuâtre drop with an angel haloed in gold hovering over a wintry village. The ABT scrim is plain blue with a tiny, simple house aslant in the corner. (As a matter of fact, some of my biggest problems with the ABT Nutcracker had to do with the sets—especially the lack of a set in Act II!) But once the curtain at BAM went up on a Downton Abbey-esque kitchen, replete with huge copper pots and hanging meats, ABT had the edge. Beginning the ballet in the kitchen smartly broke up the interminably long party scene, and it used up the music we employ for a
After the humans exit the kitchen in the ABT production, the mice take over the space and steal the food. This was brilliant: I had never noticed that this dark patch of music (which in our Nut is used as a scene transition from the front vestibule to the tree-lit parlor) is actually a foreshadowing of the music in the Battle Scene. To be quite honest, I can barely pay attention to the music here when I’m Hostessing—it is when my “husband” and I run around the scrim quickly before it lifts and rush to make a tableau at the tree. So much of the Ratmansky production made me hear the score differently; it was so refreshing!
As for the Party Scene, I think the Balanchine version has the edge purely because of the Drosselmeier characterization. The ABT Drosselmeyer (they use a “y” in the spelling of the name in their program and we use an “i”) started off strong with a fantastic, creepy entrance. He sneakily integrated himself into a chain of dancing children and at a turn in the music some of them realized they were trapped and holding hands with a spooky stranger. The kids cried and tried to wriggle out of his grasp as he stood completely still with his back to the audience. Unfortunately, as soon as he turned around the thrill was gone, for his wig and glasses made him look like Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, and he sported a very Liberace silver lamé lined cape. He was in and out for the rest of the ballet, during the Battle and Snow Scenes as well as Act II, but instead of being mysterious he always looked more like Springfield’s goodliest—and most sartorially flamboyant—neighbor to me. The NYCB Drosselmeier has a better, blacker costume and superior wig styling. He also seems more confidently in charge of the sinister plot machinations in the Party and Battle Scenes and therefore carries more dramatic weight.
The Battle Scene is hard to decide. Nothing beats our forever-growing Christmas tree, but the ABT Mice costumes are exquisite: carefully sculpted faces, dinner jackets, white knickers. Ours look like dull brown sleeping bags in comparison. Their production also has an adorable Little Mouse (Justin Souriau-Levine) who pops up in almost every scene, from the opening kitchen vignette through Act II. He was all over the Battle Scene and he truly stole the show. We have a Baby Mice corps and a tiny Bunny in our Battle Scene, but they aren’t nearly as involved. Instead of a growing tree ABT had a mammoth chair on which Clara (we use the name Marie for the heroine) perched, unthreatened, throughout the Battle Scene. I liked the shift in perspective that the chair provided, but since Clara was so isolated from the action the battle lost its danger. And she was so far above the stage I forgot about her for most of it.
Our Marie is very active during the Battle Scene which I like—it also seems more feminist and I am a sucker for stories of little girls rescuing themselves. Interestingly, in ABT’s Battle Scene the dolls from the Party Scene were involved, something I had never seen before even in any regional production. (Most professional dancers cut their teeth in some small-town Nutcracker incarnation—many of which are quite inventive.) It was a nice allusion to the fact that in ABT’s version Clara’s entire adventure from the Battle Scene on is very clearly a dream, so naturally characters from earlier in the evening bubbled up from her subconscious during her nightmare. The City Ballet version makes no real stand on whether she is dreaming or awake, either could be inferred.
The Snow Scene goes to City Ballet hands down. But I liked that the ABT Snowflakes melted and died at the end—that was funny. I also liked many moments in their choreography. The way they all blew on and then floated off in the beginning was neat, and there was a nice part with alternating croisé échappés at the music’s climax. I also like that Clara and the Prince opened the scene with a childish snowball fight. The music lent itself perfectly to their game. But then I felt they were too involved in the dancing throughout—they muddied the patterns and lines of the corps women. The NYCB Snow Scene is iconic—perhaps the highlight of the whole Nutcracker—so maybe this isn’t a fair fight. The patterns are wonderfully kaleidoscopic. A tremendous amount of fake snow gets dropped on the stage at NYCB—the swirling blizzard is mesmerizing from the front (even though it is rather treacherous for the dancers). The ABT snow barely made a dusting. My boyfriend, ever tactful, said it looked more like dandruff than snow to him!
One thing I really enjoyed about the ABT Nutcracker was that the glorious, soaring music which bridges the Battle Scene and the Snow Scene is used for a pas de deux. In Balanchine’s Nut that music is used for a floating bed solo, which I have always felt is a bit of a waste. But then again, for many people the traveling bed is a highlight. Robert Garis lists the “wandering bed” sequence as one of the most moving moments in the ballet in his book of criticism, Following Balanchine. I have fond memories of playing the Snow Queen and dancing a Snow Pas de Deux—with choreography by Ib Andersen—as a teenager in a Nut production by the Pittsburgh Youth Ballet. I remember that the musical crescendo was capped by an exciting arabesque press lift; whereas at that moment at City Ballet the bed simply stops spinning around. At ABT the pas de deux was danced by the adult versions of Clara and the Prince, beautifully portrayed by Gilliam Murphy and James Whiteside.
Since I have more Hostessing duties to attend to, I’ll have to continue this debate later!