Is Ratmansky Subverting the Big Moments in Nutcracker?

December 30, 2010

The second time around I felt more used to how Ratmansky handles big music. My two favorite pieces of his have been to little music. I mean the eerie, repetitive score by Yuri Khanon that he used for Middle Duet, and the lilting Scarlatti he choreographed to in Seven Sonatas. Both these works are full of subtle inventiveness and hints of narrative that I find tantalizing. For these reasons it’s rewarding to see Ratmansky’s best work more than once.


This is true of his Nutcracker too. But Tchaikovsky’s music, which I love, is a bit grandiose for his style. So he works around it. For instance, during the big, carnival-type music for Mother Ginger’s entrance, the eight Polichinelles enter without her, all bumptious like a bunch of clowns. When she finally enters, the music is the more delicate melody that’s usually saved for when her children emerge from her skirt.


Another example of how he subverts the big moments is that the tree doesn’t grow on the big, looming, tree-growing music, and it doesn’t grow much.  And there are other things happen center stage. In fact, last night I completely missed the growing. Also last night, as if in sync with his preference for avoiding big moments, the cannon failed to fire.


In terms of narrative choices, there is no one moment when the Nutcracker doll transforms into a prince. Drosselmeyer presents him to Clara as the full-grown, live, human boy. (Earlier, he briefly shows him to the audience as a doll.) When Clara drags the “broken,” real-boy Nutcracker to the sofa, we hear the lullaby music that usually accompanies the girls when they cradle their new dolls.


However, the richness of this Nutcracker is that Clara and the Nutcracker Boy develop a real relationship. It’s played out masterfully during the Snow Scene, a choreographic peak. Click here to read my previous blog on this. In that blog I said that the mouse stole the show. Now I think yes, but the mouse is Ratmansky. He’s the one who subverts expectations and creates the narrative thread. He brings mischief rather than punch lines. (Hey, is anyone calling him Mousemansky instead of Ratmansky?)


Casting: Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg were magnificent as Clara the Princess and Nutcracker Prince on opening night, but last night’s cast brought out the story better. Herman Cornejo and Xiomara Reyes are more childlike and more joyous, so they’re more like Clara and the Nutcracker Boy. It was quite moving to see them echoing the two children’s gestures of mutual tenderness, simultaneously and in an opposite corner. I really got it that these two beautiful grownups are a vision, or a potential future of the two children. So at the end of the grand pas de deux, when they profess love and marriage, it’s not as jarring as it was with the Murphy and Hallberg.


While he tends to swirl around, rather than hit, the big moments in music (yielding some gorgeous choreography), Ratmansky sometimes makes the smaller moments into more dramatic ones. The flights-of-flute music that’s usually for just the angels is now used to introduce the second act. Suddenly we see, behind a scrim, a lovely commingling of all the characters of the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Then the lights dim and everyone leaves except the Flowers, who come forward to hover just behind the scrim. They shift their heads softly in and out of the dappled light (by Jennifer Tipton), creating a haunting bit film noir.


Taking on a new Nutcracker is a huge task, and this is a remarkable achievement by both Ratmansky and the designer Richard Hudson. But I wonder if Ratmansky is planning to work on it further. After all, ABT’s new Sleeping Beauty was reworked the following season. I think he could make some of the narrative elements clearer and more consistent. The Russian and Arabian dances have obvious stories within them. The Russian dance is three drunk Vaudevillians, and the Arabian portrays four women trying to seduce an aloof Mr. Clean. (As I’ve said, I’m not crazy about this male chauvinist interpretation of the gorgeous Arabian music.) But the Mirliton/Marzipan is danced by five women in long tutus and top hats who are called the “Nutcracker’s sisters.” The steps and formations do not imply any particular situation, so it’s the beginning of a story that doesn’t get told.


>However, there are so many masterful touches (just the way Drosselmeyer enters the party is a mystery) and wonderful ways that Ratmansky reinterprets the music. Even if he doesn’t get the opportunity to resolve those few puzzling places, this Nutcracker will brighten and deepen the next few Decembers in Brooklyn.