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Revisiting Nutcracker - NYCB 12/9/00 matinee


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 10 December 2000 - 03:09 AM

I danced enough Nutcrackers in my training and career to shy away from this ballet, but every time I go to NYCB’s production I find myself enthralled by it. In an odd minority opinion, it’s Act I that I love and Act II I can do without. There are moments in other productions (understandably enough, those I saw early on, or danced in first) that I like better than in the NYCB production, but taken as a whole, the Balanchine version remains my favorite.

There has been previous discussion on BalletAlert on the subject of “light” and “dark” in Tchaikovsky’s or Balanchine’s Nutcracker, with some taking the stance that Balanchine has sugar coated the story. I would disagree. His touch may be light, and subtle, but I think his finger is firmly on the pulse of something that’s actually there. Rather than a psychological drama, Balanchine has made a social one, where we see two societies, one domestic and one ideal and what is shown with a sense of wonder is Marie’s entry into both of them. The social aspects of Nutcracker, the “Scottish” and Grandparents’ dance, the grand defilé of party guests entering and exiting the home; these are the things that make me prefer Act I. I’m very pleased with the fact that no matter how tired of Act I these young parents (and the company is young, very young again) might be, they never showed it. They stayed within the drama of a gracious and celebratory evening on a chilly Christmas Eve in Biedermier Germany. There were no modern-day pranks or anachronistic behaviors, and it’s so easy to stop caring about the party scene and wish you were actually dancing. But the audience of children filling the State Theater will remember this as much as Act II in what’s probably for most of them their first ballet. They will remember the children lining up for gifts, and how each parent treated them, what that magical house looks like and the line of little children all their age, walking slowly to the lit tree, arms upraised as if under a spell. It’s a stage portrait of a perfect childhood. There is real magic in the domesticity of the party scene. Ojela Burkhard was a small, beautiful Marie and a very clear mime. Zakary Yermolenko a grave, experienced Nutcracker Prince and Shimon Ito a devil of a Fritz. Melissa Walter was a very beautiful mother, and quite affectionate to her children, in a production like this, one notices the tiny details, like how she invites Fritz to dance with her after he is disappointed in his search for a partner.

Stuart Capps is a young Drosselmeier; he plays him benevolent and slightly foolish. It’s vivid and well acted, but it does make the transition to the battle scene slightly jarring. There is a real change in character, rather than amplification, from the man at the party to the ominous figure perched on the clock (I am so used to the clock striking in other productions before the entry of the mice, how very odd when I noticed it didn’t here.) I also did not notice before that Drosselmeier dances a solo in the center during the Grandparent’s dance. As I once recalled it, at that point in the music, he did not dance and so the focus was were it should rightfully be, on the children doing their very complex skipping and jumping dance. The parents gathered and rather than watching Drosselmeier, they watched their children and encouraged them by clapping along. It made much more sense. Is this a change in the production or am I simply not remembering it?

A key to Balanchine’s thoughts on the emotional landscape of the Nutcracker may also lie in his inclusion of the entr’acte from Sleeping Beauty before the battle. The music, which comes after the Panorama and before the Awakening in Sleeping Beauty has a thematic relation to the music when the tree grows in Nutcracker, so its placement seems less out of context than it might. But also, in Beauty, the entr’acte comes before a conflict with a winner who is predestined by a moral right. The Prince will awaken Aurora and Carabosse is vanquished. The conflict in Nutcracker is more explicit (there’s an actual battle) but the conclusion is no less predestined. Sleeping Beauty celebrates social harmony. I think that the music of the entr’acte, which gives a premonition of the heightened emotions of a conflict and its favorable resolution in celebration of order and harmony fits well when added into Balanchine’s Nutcracker because they inhabit the same emotional territory. There are shadows, but primarily there is light. I would agree with those who want more shadows that making the Mouse King a bit more threatening rather than zany, at least in costume design, wouldn’t hurt. But for the first time, at the end of the battle, when the windows dropped away and the Nutcracker Prince walked slowly back to the limitless vista of white trees in the blue-black night sky did I not miss having a pas de deux to the Snow music. There was tremendous magic and ritual to the bed’s journey through the still, cold, landscape that I finally caught. I love the music and long to see it danced, but I think I understand a bit better what Balanchine was driving at. The waltz of the Snowflakes was beautiful as always. Even knowing how noxious stage snow can be, it is a completely magical effect. Looking at the choreography, I noticed again the fluttering agitato Balanchine has built into the choreography. It’s shimmering and cold, but like frost, it dances in jagged angles across the landscape.

The level of dancing of both Acts I and II were solid. It’s nice to see Ashley Bouder and Elizabeth Walker paired as Harlequin and Columbine, Ms. Bouder’s legs are well shaped, with a real power in the calves and a fine line to the foot. In Act II, we saw Margaret Tracey as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Experience has been very kind to Tracey, she’s become a “house ballerina” in a positive sense. Once she could be counted on to reliably show the steps, now she can be counted on to give a decent, charming performance. You may or may not treasure her, but she has earned our respect. Her variation looked slightly less focused than the Grand Pas even though she inaugurated Jared Angle as a new cavalier. She was an excellent pick for him to debut with, she paired well with him and even if she’s off she is the sort who doesn’t crumble. Angle has promise for classical roles. He partners very well, has fine line and proportions and a noble mien. He’s also tall enough to partner many of the ballerinas in a company where height is welcome. Let’s see more of him.

Janie Taylor was an interesting Dewdrop. How one reacts to her will depend very much on how much one likes a certain NYCB style of impetuosity. Ms. Taylor is all risk and attack; she goes for broke on every step. It wasn’t a polished performance; it was a wild, but exciting and powerful one, indicative of her youth. It will be very interesting to see what she becomes as she grows older; will it still be all risk, or will she choose to sacrifice some attack for finesse?

In other roles, I find I notice Eva Natanya for the happiness she seems to have when she dances; she makes Spanish a joyous event. Heléne Alexopoulos is probably one of the most senior dancers in the company; she still has one of the most supple bodies. Her Arabian made me notice the prancing quality Balanchine but into the choreography, it does not glide as I thought it might. Daniel Ulbricht performed Tea. He is still a student at SAB, but has been doing soloist roles in Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker. The company may have a surfeit of short technicians (Tom Gold, Benjamin Millepied and Adam Hendrickson would have seniority, among others) but it does seem odd that he isn’t even an apprentice and yet he does solo roles. Ulbricht is a strong jumper, and quite young, so the lines in his jumps aren’t refined yet. Jason Fowler took the usually thankless part of Mother Ginger and made it vivid without being egregious. It was gratifying to see someone attacking it with such good spirits, and decent drag! The orchestra played well and was well conducted by Richard Moredock.


[This message has been edited by Leigh Witchel (edited December 10, 2000).]

#2 Michael

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Posted 10 December 2000 - 09:53 AM

Leigh - I think Tracy is the best Sugarplum I've seen this year. She's got command of herself and I particularly noticed how much time and room she found within the choreography, never making it seem rushed, but the opposite. She made it seem spacious, so that she could pause within it and phrase her steps with a rubato quality even. It's wonderful when you see a dancer do that.

#3 Manhattnik

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Posted 11 December 2000 - 10:46 AM

Leigh, thanks for the well thought review. I particularly liked the "limitless vista" part. While I can understand how a more sinister Mouse King might be appropriate, I'm loath to even contemplate such a change in NYCB's production. One way we learn to vanquish our own personal demons is by realizing how silly and ineffectual they really are, and perhaps this is the lesson Clara learns from defeating the Mouse King.

I'm going on Friday, and perhaps before then. I feel quite negligent in that I haven't been to a single Nut yet.

#4 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 11 December 2000 - 07:37 PM

Thanks for commenting, both Michael and Eric. This will probably be the only time I see Nutcracker this year, so I won't have a point of comparison for Sugar Plums. And I think Eric's comment on the Mouse King is very sensible. I think Balanchine's version is pretty sound as it is dramaturgically. If I were to do my own version, I'd probably restore the Cavalier's variation, and put both variations back into the grand pas and assorted other tinkerings, but that's just choreographer's envy!

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#5 Manhattnik

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Posted 11 December 2000 - 09:14 PM

I recently saw a fuzzy video from the old 1950's broadcast of NYCB's Nutcracker (complete with old TV commercials -- what a trip!). There are many fine details (not the least of which is Balanchine's Drosselmeyer), but one I particularly liked was how there was no Cavalier at all, but rather the Sugar Plum Fairy was partnered by the four guys who'd danced the preceding character solos: Coffee (Arthur Mitchell, back then, before Balanchine made it a girl's dance to provide the dads in the audience with some eye candy), Tea, Candy Cane and Hot Chocolate.

I'm also rather fond of Vainonen's version, with its rather absurd preponderence of five Cavaliers.

[This message has been edited by Manhattnik (edited December 11, 2000).]

#6 sneds

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Posted 13 December 2000 - 02:08 PM

Hi!
Some thoughts about Ulbricht...

I noticed that Gold, Millipied and Hendrickson are all listed in next week's casting list. Millipied danced the cavalier already this season, so one would assume he is not injured. However, Gold and Hendrickson may well be returning from injuries. Ulbricht is still dancing in at least three or four performances a week.
I wonder if NYCB is holding off on offering Ulbricht an apprentice contract until after the Nutcracker so he can dance in as many performances as needed.
If I remember correctly, apprentices can only dance in ~5 ballets a season, so a contract would prevent Ulbricht from dancing in place of injured dancers on regular basis. Thus by holding off on a contract NYCB can actually get more dancing out of him Posted Image)
Kate

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#7 Juliet

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Posted 13 December 2000 - 08:45 PM

Daniel Ullbricht is very, very talented. He is also about 5'4' in height. Peter Martins can acknowledge his talent, give him some very valuable performing experience, and perhaps get him on a road to a contract with a company which uses smaller dancers.

I notice that Faye Arthurs is down for Coffee next week--it will be interesting to see her in this debut. I was exceedingly disappointed in D. McBrearty in this role a week or so ago....not in the least pretty, much less enticing.....although I think she has looked good in other roles, I wonder why she is cast for this.

#8 sneds

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Posted 13 December 2000 - 10:33 PM

Hi!
Actually, I remember reading in an article that Daniel Ulbricht is about 5 ft 6, and that was at least a year ago. I believe he is only 16, and many guys continue to grow well past that age. Thus, I see no reason wny Martins would "give up" on him at this point.

There are definately short men in NYCB, and for that matter ABT (Angel Corella being one). While a company certainly can't stock up on short men, a larger company like NYCB would seem to have the space to take the occasional shorter talent.
Kate

#9 Yvonne

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Posted 14 December 2000 - 12:05 AM

Speaking of NYCB, how tall is Jock Soto?

#10 kiki

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Posted 14 December 2000 - 07:22 AM

I am almost positive that Daniel Ulbricht is taller than 5'4", 5'6" sounds a little more like it. He is a great dancer...I know we'll be seeing a lot of him in the future!

#11 Guest_doobius_*

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Posted 19 December 2000 - 06:15 PM

Yvonne, i believe that Jock Soto is close to 6 feet tall. Maybe a bit under that.

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Posted 19 December 2000 - 08:08 PM

Having taken adagio class taught by Jock Soto very frequently, I would say he is about 5'7" Definitely not 6 feet. I must say, all of them young men in NYCB should learn from Jock's exquisite partnering skills! Posted Image)

#13 Guest_doobius_*

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Posted 19 December 2000 - 11:46 PM

Titania, I can say without a doubt that Jock Soto is taller than 5'7. If anyone else has a more accurate height I'm curious to find out his exact height.


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