ABT’s New Nutcracker Triumphs

December 23, 2010

The star of this show, without a doubt, is the littlest mouse. Every time he shows up, he steals the scene. His character reveals how brilliant Ratmansky can be with narrative continuity and surprise. Tiny Justin Souriau-Levine scampers with extra relish, embodying both innocence and defiance. He has such crazy purpose that it seems he could tear off in any direction at any moment. He runs belly-forward, and hey, it’s endearing to see a mouse who ate one too many sugar plums! (But really, this kid is stick thin, which I happen to know from seeing a rehearsal. I also know that the unadulterated glee is absolutely natural.)


It’s that glee that spreads to everyone in the first act onstage and off, so by intermission, everyone’s in a good mood. There were so many ingenious bits in this new Nutcracker that it kept us all on our narrative toes. And there’s wonderful choreography in places where you’d least expect, like Drosselmeyer’s wind-up dolls. And in the development of the relationship between Clara and the Nutcracker Boy, performed with radiance by Catherine Hurlin and Tyler Maloney, there was an overall arc that you can follow—mostly.


Ratmansky’s Nutcracker is book-ended with a juicy kiss fore and aft. In the kitchen scene, Mr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum grab a smooch while the nanny covers Clara and Fritz’s eyes. And at the end, after the big pas de deux danced by “Clara the Princess” (Gillian Murphy) and “Nutcracker, the Prince” (David Hallberg), he suddenly proposes to her and she accepts. He puts a ring on her finger, someone puts a veil on her head, and you almost hear wedding bells.


I get that all this represents Clara’s transformation from girl to woman. But when Hallberg made the two-finger marriage vow and they kissed passionately after a long, hard pas de deux, I thought maybe we’d fallen off the Nutcracker rails and slipped into Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake.


That said, I completely enjoyed the performance and savored the new ideas.


I loved the vigor of the grown-up mice as they invaded the kitchen; I loved how the children stomped angrily to get their presents; and I loved how the four wind-up dolls come to the aid of the Nutcracker Boy in the battle with the mice. But most of all I loved the snow scene, which is an epic in itself. The relationship between Clara and the Nutcracker Boy grows from friendship to teasing to protectiveness, all within the changing of the extreme weather. The first plucked notes of the snow scene, when you usually see one or two isolated snowflakes sauté onto the stage, that’s when the two children suddenly look up and around to feel the first flakes. They play so beautifully in the snow that they make us hear the music anew. When the snow starts kicking up a storm, different clusters of snowflakes pull the two children apart. The whole snow scene is studded with interesting moves that make the snow almost like another character in the story. The children find each other as individuals in the snow.


A historical note: There are four bees who buzz and flap around. They even get to pollinate the Flowers. I think having bees is historically accurate because I know that the Maryinsky ballerina Alexandra Fedorova (the mother of my late ballet teacher, Irine Fokine) was a bee as a child, and that was probably soon after the ballet premiered in 1892.


The hardest thing for me to get used to (besides the questions below) is that the Sugar Plum pas de deux has been diluted to be part of the overall narrative of Clara and her boyfriend. (The role called Sugar Plum is kind of a cipher role. All she does, after being the Nanny in the first act, is wear a lavish pasha-type outfit, fall asleep, and mime playing a harp.) The grandiosity has been tuned down a notch and replaced with an attractive but languid kind of inventiveness—and a single, applause-getting, one-handed lift as a nod, I assume, to the Soviet version.


So I had these questions:


• Why is the Nutcracker already in human form the first time he’s presented to Clara? It makes it awfully hard for Fritz (played by the terrific Kai Monroe) to “break” him. And then when the Nutcracker Boy changes into doll-size, it’s anti-climactic.


• Why are all the girls wearing white dresses in the party scene? It looks like they are going for Communion, not a party.


• Why has the Arabian dance been turned into a joke of about a guy with a harem of four overly aggressive women? I appreciate that Ratmansky is trying to give each divertissement its own narrative thrust, but that music is so beautiful and sinewy that it seems like a lost opportunity. This prolonged joke, which lasts the whole number, is definitely not as witty as the humor in the first act.


• Why is the snow pas de deux performed by the same reigning couple as the grand pas de deux? Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg are exquisite, but it doesn’t give the Sugar Plum pas that sense that it is so special that it’s saved for the end. Nor does it help spread the casting plums out. I think the narrative answer would be that the whole ballet traces the growth of these two children into adulthood. In their snow scene, Murphy and Hallberg become the young-adult doubles for Clara and the Nutcracker Boy, and then with the big not-Sugar Plum duet, they reach maturity. So there is growth there. I don’t, however, see that in the choreography. And as I said, a sudden wedding scene at that point doesn’t work for me.


OK, questions over. In the last scene, Clara gets out of bed and sees her two guys from different times of her life (of her dream), Hallberg way over stage right and Maloney stage left. She reaches first for one and he disappears into the wings, and then for the other, who also backs out. Her ideal men slip through her fingers. Then she finds, under her pillow, the Nutcracker doll, who triggered the whole reverie in the first place. So that’ll be her ideal guy for now.


The triumph of this production is the sheer imagination that pours out of Ratmansky—well supported by Richard Hudson’s costumes and sets and Jennifer Tipton’s lighting. Even if some of the plot points are confusing, this is a colorful production, with shades of light and dark, that will bear multiple viewings.