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Is Nutcracker the Greatest Ballet Ever Made?Etc., etc.,


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#1 papeetepatrick

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 06:15 PM

I've decided this needs a separate post, so people can keep talking about the controversy in the Macaulay post. I'm repeating my post from there, and placing Bonnette's reply to me in a third post for now. Mods, please rearrange as is appropriate:

My post, which was originally on the Nutcracker Chronicles thread is as follows:

#2 papeetepatrick

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 06:19 PM

What interests me is that The Nutcracker is clearly the most powerful ballet every written in several senses. Does that mean it is the greatest? Yes, just like the most powerful nation in the world is the greatest viz., the U.S. of A., in practical terms, yes, nothing else comes close, not even Swan Lake, in ballet terms, or England or France or even China yet, in national power terms.

And it is also interesting that balletomanes take it so seriously too. The popular audience comprises people who never go to a single other ballet, that's one thing. Then balletomanes tend to go see it every year. There have been discussions about how the Nutcracker is not everywhere seen as a holiday thing, but the Balanchine is, and maybe previously the old ones were, too.

This is a curious collaboration, because connoisseurs of ballet most likely don't think The Nutcracker is the greatest ballet ever made, but they talk about it, with every detail of minutiae, as if it were. Which is fine as long as you feel it's that important, for whatever reason.

I've seen The Nutcracker a total of twice and it is very enjoyable, but I don't plan to see it again unless it comes up as some social affair to do; I wouldn't seek it out for artistic reasons. It's not an unimportant ballet to me, but neither is it particularly outstanding either. It's on the same level as 'La Bayadere' or 'Don Quixote', but not up there with Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty or much of Balanchine.

I wonder if anybody else doesn't care that much about the Nutcracker as an always de rigueur holiday event. It may be that it finances the rest of ballet to a great extent, and that's reason enough for it, no other ballet does that. But is it this 'cozy' thing that happens for some balletomanes every year? Because to me, it's just another good ballet among a number of full-length one, if I'm being as objective as I can be. It's pretty clear that the appeal has to do with its charm for children and its use in the holidays (even if not everywhere, most people think of it as an Xmas event.) If you're in the business, it's obviously a big deal, but not everybody who likes ballet is in the business, so I wonder if there are others who realize that the Nutcracker is also just something that is propelled by its popularity with families w/children, and may not really be more interesting than a lot of other ballet. I do know it's not necessary to love ballet to not want to see a lot more Nutcrackers, although this is not meant as a criticism of those who do. I just think it's a fine ballet, but not that great.

So what I guess I am asking is, of you balletomanes, which of you think that, overall, the Nutcracker is the single most important ballet every made? or the greatest? or the most worthy of infinite, endless attention? Nobody seems to ask this, but I've also never heard the Nutcracker proclaimed by even a single critic, dancer, artist, or balletomane as 'the greatest ballet ever made'. Not that it has to be, again, to make it all this popular. On the other hand, the 'spell' that seems to come, and this includes Macaulay's 'Nutcracker Chronicles', which is representative of this perennial phenomenon, seems to be something accepted for the most part. But, while I stopped being an NYCB freak and started getting interested in other ballet companies that used to interest me much less, it has never happened that I have been caught by this 'Nutcracker spell', and I imagine there are even some dancers and choreographers who are not always.

I'm also realizing that I would want to go see other dancers in 'Swan Lake' and 'Sleeping Beauty' and many Balanchine and Ashton works, and other things I can't even remember right now, but to go see what somebody's 'Coffee' or 'Arabian' is just doesn't captivate me. But it seems as reliable as tax returns, and that's what's interesting to me about the phenomenon. So I want to know if there really ARE ballet super-fans who think Nutcracker is THE greatest ballet ever made.

#3 papeetepatrick

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 06:23 PM

I'm glad you raised this issue, because I've always felt like the lone ranger when it comes to Nutcracker...I appreciate it in its historical context, for its visual panoply, wonderful music and so on, but it is among my least favorite ballets. I don't find it interesting or engaging, and certainly not great; even as I child, it left me cold. Maybe I'm just a born curmudgeon. :blushing:



#4 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 07:08 PM

Patrick...we're connected! It is funny...just as I was copying and pasting your inquire from the other forum to take it right here, I see that you thought the same... :thumbsup:

So here it goes.

So I want to know if there really ARE ballet super-fans who think Nutcracker is THE greatest ballet ever made.


No, Patrick, it is not...this title definitely goes to Giselle... :thumbsup: ...BUT

...from my unorthodox experience with the Nutcracker- (which I've realize differs greatly from the majority of the posters here)-all I can say is that my own pleasure about this ballet has nothing to do either with Christmas or with childhood memories- (I got to see its full version once I had moved to Havana for college). What happenes with this ballet there- (just as with Coppelia or La Fille Mal Gardee)-is that it has been reworked- (heavily based on the BRMC version)-to be appealing BASICALLY to the adult audience, the very basis of it being, in order of appearance:

Act I

1-The Toys variations. Here Alonso introduces the three toys from Petroushka, as a matter of a tribute, their difficult variations recreating Fokine's ballet. Three soloists.
2-The battle Scene. Choreographed a la Baryshnikov, with the Nutcracker tossing all kinds of tours and jetes. Te adult female corps of mice on pointe is very attractive too.
3-The Adagio danced by Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, right after the battle and before the Snow Scene, celebrating the transformation of the Nutcracker into a handsome bailarin. A classical Pas danced by couple # 1-(two principal dancers)
4-The Snow Scene. One of the most beautiful white scenes ever, which, if well choreographed, can easily compete and win over the Shades scene and even the corps of Swans scenes. I take its music over many, many, many of some other ballet music at any time.
5-The Snow Queen Pas de Deux. I know this is Pavlova's invention, but it works, and if it works, I don't see why it can't be considered a good idea. At the end, it doesn't even break the pathos of the ballet as the Peasant PDD does in Giselle. Two Principal dancers- (couple # 2)- in one beautiful classical adagio also lifted from the BRMC version.

Act II
6-A beautifully synchronized choreography of female adult Corps dressed as matryoshkas and burreing their way as the curtain rises, giving the illusion that they're floating as they form all sorts of patterns onstage. Very effective.
7-Spanish dance. Choreographed with the same level of difficulty as its sister from Swan Lake.
8-Russian Dance. A great Trepak danced by three male soloists that could had been taken out of a performance by the Moiseyev Company.
9-Arabian dance. The chance to show the girl with the most Zakharova-like extensions- (I pass here...I've always found this loooooong variation boring, no matter which version). People usually loved it though...
10-No Mother Cigogne, so no over flown of families wanting to see their little girl up there. This is certainly NOT the version for them.
11-Waltz of the Flowers. Just as the Snow Scene, if well choreographed, it can compete with the best of the Sleeping Beauty's Grande Valse Villageoise or Swan Lake's Act I Valse: Tempo di Valse
11-And then, the most anticipated moment...the Sugar Plum Fairy PDD, in Havana just as respected and revered as the White Swan or the Veil PDD from Bayadere. Couple # 3, also formed by two Principals.

Actually, even more opportunities than some warhorses to display several couples dancing classical numbers.

Aside from the fact that one got to be totally brainwashed after years and years listening to Mme about "the importance of Ivanov choreography within the classical repertoire" :)

#5 canbelto

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 08:35 PM

I've seen The Nutcracker a total of twice and it is very enjoyable, but I don't plan to see it again unless it comes up as some social affair to do


I find this a bit ... shocking. Only twice in your entire life? Which versions did you see?

And no I don't consider Nutcracker to be the greatest ballet ever made. The score is wondrous but dramatically it doesn't have much depth and attempts to make it "deeper" usually end up alienating me (see my video Nutcrackathon thread).

But ... I will say that the Nutcracker has a sentimental place in my heart. I remember the old Gelsey Kirkland/Baryshnikov film in its PBS telecasts and watching it and from that I think I developed my lifelong love for ballet.

The Balanchine Nutcracker ballet however for me goes beyon great entertainment and is actually a great full-length ballet. I could go on about all the reasons I love the ballet but I'll save that for the Nutcrackathon video thread.

#6 papeetepatrick

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 08:54 PM

Thanks, canbelto, yes, only twice in real life. I went about ballet quite backwardly, and never saw the Nutcracker till 2006 after I started with BT. Then in late 2007, I saw it in Los Angeles with LA Ballet. Yes, I agree the NYCB production is a great ballet in many ways.

After I wrote that, I realized I should have mentioned that I have watched a good many dvd's of Nutcracker, RB, the Baryshnikov-Kirkland, and my first intro to ballet was the old McBride-Villella telecast. A few others, I think, but no, it never really interested me, I went in 2006 primarily because of BT. I have, otoh, seen Allegro Brillante, Apollo, Serenade, Liebeslieder, and Concerto Barocco numerous times, although not as many times as many BTers will have. What I mean is that I saw all those performances, in fact, and many other Balanchine, Robbins (and Petipa too) long before I saw my first live Nutcracker. I actually value the balletomanes' here championing it along with the not-so-educated general public, as that is what brought it into my sphere. But you can probably see that when you go about it in the way I did (meaning, as another example, the way I want to see Osipova and Hallberg more than I want even to see anything at NYCB at this point, but for a long time mostly just wanted to see NYCB), it automatically makes finally seeing 'the Nutcracker', after all 'that hard stuff' (including several Davidsbundlertanze) just fall into place as one of many ballets. I like it this way, though, too, and indeed there are many beautiful things in the Balanchine in a live performance, I think we all love the Snowflake Scene and the music to that, even if some of us feel less enthusiasm for some of the rest of it. Well, of the big 19th century pieces, I'd automatically see Swan Lake, SB, or Giselle before I would Nutcracker.

I think it's probably some sort of modernist perspective--the Nutcracker phenomenon is a kind of all-encompassing thing that surrounds people esp. at Xmas, but to me it's exactly like watching Allegro Brillante. But I am fascinated at how hugely viral the piece literally is. No other even comes close, does it? not even Swan Lake, in terms of vast popular appeal.

But ... I will say that the Nutcracker has a sentimental place in my heart. I remember the old Gelsey Kirkland/Baryshnikov film in its PBS telecasts and watching it and from that I think I developed my lifelong love for ballet.


I have to say that, even though I'm not so attached as you to the piece (with your reservations noted), the McBride/Villella telecast probably had the same earliest effect on me, even though that is almost like the forest primeval in my mind at this point.

Cristian, what is BRTN? Is that to do with Ballet Russes? You throw it off so casually I obviously ought to know, but I read as many of the Nutcracker technically-oriented threads as I can, but these, as is well-known, are not few and far-between...

#7 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 09:23 PM

Cristian, what is BRTN? Is that to do with Ballet Russes? You throw it off so casually I obviously ought to know, but I read as many of the Nutcracker technically-oriented threads as I can, but these, as is well-known, are not few and far-between...


MRTM-Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (sorry about the T and N...my own typos... :blushing: ). I edited it to BRMC

#8 Helene

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 09:57 PM

Jessika Anspach, who was the first graduate of Pacific Northwest Ballet's Eastside school to enter the company, wrote about "The Nutcracker" for Dance Magazine:

Surviving Nutcracker

But before I can say anymore, her eyebrows rise with astonishment as she says, “Wow! So were you like in The Nutcracker?”

The magic words are uttered and another friend standing behind us interrupts our conversation with: “Oh, Jessika! I think I want to take my nieces to see Nutcracker again this year. Do you know which shows you’ll be in, because we want to buy tickets for the one you’re in.”

I don’t even know which question to answer first. Was I in Nutcracker? As a member of the corps de ballet, it’s laughable to even think that I’d have the option of not being in it. And wait, what month is this? I don’t begin Nutcracker rehearsals till mid-November. It’s July.

Maybe you’ve experienced a similar situation. For most people Nutcracker is all they know about ballet. Balanchine? Forsythe? Who? But mention Nutcracker and their eyes light up. For them The Nutcracker is ballet. For me, as a professional corps de ballet dancer, it’s an inevitable and inescapable part of life. Even in July.



#9 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 11:19 PM

When I was a dancer, and now, I look at Nutcracker, like Ms. Anspach, as a fact of life.

After doing about 20 of them one year (small potatoes, I know) I heard the ouverture miniature playing in a restaurant and got them to turn it to something else. I do love it, but I'd love it more if it weren't an obligation.

#10 Helene

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 11:30 PM

One thing I noticed from doing the Bolshoi schedule for the Calendar is that they have a limited number of performances each year, and the performances are interspersed in the rep. But they're not relying upon the ballet to fund the rest of the season.

#11 GWTW

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Posted 14 December 2010 - 12:42 AM

Nutcracker isn't the greatest ballet ever made,* but for me, like many other BT members, is inextricably connected to memories and emotions surrounding the American holiday season. I lived in the US for a number of years as an adult, and in the beginning, I was quite desperately lonely (and cold, poor and unemployed). I was lucky enough to be living in a city where Balanchine's Nutcracker is presented every year. A discounted matinee of Nutcracker was like a drink of water to a thirsty man. That was it - I became a total convert to the cult of the Nutcracker, worshipping at the shrine of the Sugar Plum Fairy. :bow: I do actually prefer my Nutcracker to include a Dewdrop, but I'll take it any way it comes.
This year, I went with my husband and children to see the Israel Ballet's production of the Nutcracker, which, by the way, is edited to remove any reference to Christmas. :innocent: My sweet son said afterwards that it was 'almost' as good as the Nutcracker we saw in New York. Well, no it wasn't (and I'm not sure he really remembers the one NYCB Nutcracker I took him to), but that's fine. As far as I'm concerned, the objective of the Nutcracker is to spread good cheer - and in American constitutional terms, to promote the pursuit of happiness.

*Based on my current viewing experience, that's Concerto Barocco.

#12 bart

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Posted 14 December 2010 - 05:24 AM

I agree with GWTW that the appeal of Nutcracker (to American audiences, anyway) has to do with growing up with it. It also has to do with its magical score ... and with the amazing way that score and story-line allow for so many versions, each of which seems to have power over the emotions of audiences.

I've seen many productions over the years and still love to watch them, often to compare. For decades, Balanchine's version (which I first saw as a teenager) was my unquestioned favorite. This year, however, a few things hapened that intervened to move it down from first place.

1) watching a so-so performance by Miami City Ballet: nothing wrong but nothing magical either -- a performance that did not illuminate the score or the choreography;

2) realizing that I had actually enjoyed and been more moved by the performance 2 weeks earlier of a different version, given by a STUDENT company, Boca Ballet, and its guest artists;

3) reading Alastair Macaulay's implauisbly over-the-top hymn of praise the magic of the "non-dance" moments in Balanchine's. Enough is enough. It just doesn't work that way for me and hasn't since the first Balanchine Nutcrackers I saw in the mid 1950s.. I admire but do not feel what Macaulay feels or see what he claims to see.

My current Nutcracker favorite is Mark Morris's "The Hard Nut," which I have watched twice this season on dvd and which has (for me) the "newness" that Balanchine's version once has. Even though it's a work that is almost 20 years old. I played this dvd for several ballet-enjoying but non-specialist friends. They were equally delighted and entranced.

Morris of course alters both the storyline and the order and structure of the main dance elements. It's not ballet -- but it pays constant homage to ballet and academic ballet steps. It respects the integrity of the score in a way that Balanchine did not. The orchestra plays with a brio that is often lacking in other Nutcracker productions. It's full of color, speed and airiness (those wonderful Morris runs), it has a philosophical point (everyone we meet in life plays a part in our growing up), etc It's visually inventive, even to the point of doing away with the growing Christmas tree. It has an ending that makes dramatic sense and is deeply moving,despite rearranging the dances (while not rearranging the music).

Is Nutcracker "the greatest ballet ever"? No. As with "the greatest painting," "the greatest novel," etc., my mind doesn't work in those directions.

However ... "my favorite Nutcracker now and (I suspect) for quite a while?" Yes. And that's enoug for me.

Here's Alastair Macaulay's recent and very positive review of a recent performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music:

http://www.nytimes.c...?_r=1&ref=dance

#13 richard53dog

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Posted 14 December 2010 - 06:03 AM

For decades, Balanchine's version (which I first saw as a teenager) was my unquestioned favorite. This year, however, a few things hapened that intervened to move it down from first place.

1) watching a so-so performance by Miami City Ballet: nothing wrong but nothing magical either -- a performance that did not illuminate the score or the choreography;

2) realizing that I had actually enjoyed and been more moved by the performance 2 weeks earlier of a different version, given by a STUDENT company, Boca Ballet, and its guest artists;




I'm wandering a little :off topic: with this comment but I noticed two of the points you list and wanted to add a bit of my own take. I realize more and more how vital the energy and direction is to a successful performance. The basic material itself is often not enough; people will say "X(fill in your iconic ballet, opera, play, etc) is foolproof and plays itself"
I don't think so! Almost nothing is foolproof if it isn't charged with energy and purpose.

And there is a flip side, which is contained in your second point. In a performance, even without the greatest material or the most accomplished, polished performers, a performance can rocket up to the sky if the performers provide the spark of energy and conviction. Now there is an "if" here, there has to be a certain basic level of competence ; enthusiasm alone won't do it. But I'm sometimes amazed at performances I see in smaller performing venues . It can be just wonderful!

#14 bart

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Posted 14 December 2010 - 09:11 AM

richard, I agree with everything you wrote ... and just wish I could have expressed this as well.

Is it "off topic"? I don't think so. There's a direct connection to the concept of "greatest ballet ever made." Great works exist in themselves, in the way they are peformed, and in way they are perceived over time by the audience. This is especially true in a multi-layered work like Balanchine's Nutcracker, in which so many elements -- music, story line, choreography, decor, special effects, casting -- have been put into place and then fixed with little possibility of change.

The Balanchine Nutcracker I saw in the 50s -- when the Sugar Plum was a Verdy and the rising of the Christmas tree was an astonishing coup de theatre for everyone in the theater -- is not the same Nutcracker I have seen over the years at NYCB and now at Miami. I can't be. This is true even though the template is more or less fixed, by the Balanchine Trust, copyright restrictions, and a reverence for Balanchine's art.

It's ME that has changed. I come to it differently. I look for new things. I still want to be moved to tears, but what moved me 50 years ago is -- at least in the details -- not what moves me today.

I am not suggesting that we play around much with ballets like Giselle, Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. But the wonder of Nutcracker is that it CAN be played around with. And it still flourishes. Balanchine showed us this when he drastically redfined the Russian version he knew as a young man. I believe that Morris and others have shown us this too.

All you need is the music -- the story (some variation of what Hoffmann made of it) -- a commitment to the spirit of the piece -- empathy with the emotional yearnings of the audience -- and a bit of luck. A little genius wouldn't hurt, either.

#15 papeetepatrick

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Posted 14 December 2010 - 09:35 AM

Is it "off topic"? I don't think so. There's a direct connection to the concept of "greatest ballet ever made." Great works exist in themselves, in the way they are peformed, and in way they are perceived over time by the audience. This is especially true in a multi-layered work like Balanchine's Nutcracker, in which so many elements -- music, story line, choreography, decor, special effects, casting -- have been put into place and then fixed with little possibility of change.


I am not suggesting that we play around much with ballets like Giselle, Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. But the wonder of Nutcracker is that it CAN be played around with. And it still flourishes. Balanchine showed us this when he drastically redfined the Russian version he knew as a young man. I believe that Morris and others have shown us this too.

All you need is the music -- the story (some variation of what Hoffmann made of it) -- a commitment to the spirit of the piece -- empathy with the emotional yearnings of the audience -- and a bit of genius and luck.



These are all excellent and interesting responses, so I want to clarify somewhat my use of 'Greatest Ballet Ever Made'. It's awkward, but I couldn't think of anything else last night. My mind doesn't work that way either, as bart continues:

Is Nutcracker "the greatest ballet ever"? No. As with "the greatest painting," "the greatest novel," etc., my mind doesn't work in those directions.

But the question needs to be asked because, as I said in the OP, it unquestionably is light-years ahead of all other ballets in terms of popularity and financial exchange value. And we all seem to love it to some degree (I also love 'Miniature Overture', Leigh, but I can see why you wouldn't want to keep hearing it, like 'Greensleeves' in Muzak systems in England, or that was still common in the 80s), but I'm probably asking it because that 'spell' doesn't hit me; I don't feel the need to see it every year or even every few years; I might decide to go to a single other performance of it, but even that would probably do for awhile. I think it's partially because, even though I used to go mostly to NYCB, I did see some 'Swan Lake' and SB productions by other companies, and somehow avoided the Nutcracker because it seemed so weirdly gigantic, almost like Phantom of the Opera, you know, totally populist, a little more than I usually like. So that, by the time BT convinced me that not seeing a live Nutcracker was a glaring omission, I had a different perspective, and was too old to 'fall under its spell' in the same way. Granted, it's very different in a live performance, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

So I just said 'greatest', because it must be at least 100 times more well-known than even 'Swan Lake', which might be second runner-up, not sure (or rather perhaps, 100 times 'most-seen', I think many people know about 'Swan Lake' but haven't seen it; people everywhere have seen Nutcracker). Its flexibility is a very beautiful thing, and this very POWER it has a piece of ballet is unknown elsewhere.

But I am interested to hear the remarks about the ballet, which people are here focussing on, and this

However ... "my favorite Nutcracker now and (I suspect) for quite a while?" Yes. And that's enoug for me.

explains the way the piece is thoroughly integrated into the culture. It's just that bart and others here could also say the same thing for Swan Lake or Giselle or T & V or Concerto Barocco, perhaps, while the general public could only be almost certain to know about Nutcracker. And that popular power makes it in some ways the most amazing ballet ever created, even if not the highest point artistically. And it's something one is familiar with long before one (like me) even decides it's time to finally see it live: As a child, I used to play 4-hand piano reductions of the score of the Nutcracker over and over with a friend (in the old Schirmer edition), and this was marvelous fun ('Miniature Overture' was the most difficult, with all those repeated notes--it's a perfect little piece.) I'm not the purist I used to be, but I'd say the flexibility doesn't quite run (for me) to Ellington's jazz version of the Nutcracker Suite; and it's the ONLY Ellington I don't like. Strange to be 'purist' about the Nutcracker, isn't it? But it just doesn't have anything to do with that laid-back cabaret/jazz sound, I guess.


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