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


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#16 bart

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Posted 14 December 2010 - 10:32 AM

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.

I Idon't know the Ellington version but intend to check it out. I do feel the same way about other attempts to exploit the familiarity of the music while expressing it in new and personal musical language.

This is a great score -- objectively as well as subjectively in the hearts of millions of people. It's interesting that Mark Morris, a very musical choreographer it seems to me, has been more faithful to the integrity of the score than was Balanchine, arguably the most musical choreographer of all.

#17 Drew

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Posted 14 December 2010 - 07:22 PM

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 am not persuaded by this--one would never feel compelled to ask if a work in a different media (movie or book or painting) was the greatest based on these criteria--popularity and financial exchange value. I realize the comparison does not run on all fours (so to speak), but nor is it the case that "we all . . . love it to some degree" unless "to some degree" allows for an awful lot of latitude. Of course if someone is posting on a thread on "Nutcracker Chronicles" likely that person DOES love it to some degree. But that is not all balletomanes, not even all American balletomanes.

For myself, I have very much enjoyed some good-to-great performances of Nutcracker (and been bored by middling ones). I usually admire the stagecraft of the few productions I have seen. I can even get carried away by a great performance--for a few minutes anyway. I also danced in it as a child which I found unspeakably thrilling. But even as a child I did not exactly love the ballet or, at least, it was far from my favorite. (Too many children, not enough dancing: that's what I thought as a child--plus I wasn't crazy about the Christmas theme though I realize that would not be a common reaction; even now, when I am more open to the ballet's charms than I used to be I am not mad for the children--or adults pretending to be children. if I had to choose my favorite choreography for children then it would be Balanchine's Midsummer's Night Dream. Nutcracker--not even close.) I last saw Nutcracker at NYCB about 5 years ago--it had some extraordinary highlights (including a great Sugar Plum Fairy in Ringer), but ... uh ... I did not regret that I would only have to "sit through it" once.

Is it a cultural phenomenon in the United States? Sure: I completely agree. I was vaguely under the impression that it does not play the same role in other countries and cultures and indeed only started playing that role here in the wake of Balanchine's version. And of course "here" means a country whose ballet companies need "moneymakers" and perform Nutcracker in the midst of a larger moneymaking Christmas machine. I doubt that more than a few people going to see Nutcracker ever experience it as any kind of gateway ballet, leading them to attend other ballets: it's a holiday tradition, which is a different thing. If they enjoy themselves then they go back to Nutcracker the next year.

I do think it is a great work and I do like it and admire it. I also attribute its lasting power and even its flexibility to one thing: Tchaikovsky's score. Set the same story to Minkus or even Adam--well, we would not be having this conversation. (Maybe Delibes and we would...) Of course the story inspired Tchaikovsky (who, in turn, inspired Ivanov) so, sure they all get some credit for the template--but really I think Tchaikovsky takes the palm here. This is one of ballet's greatest scores.

#18 papeetepatrick

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Posted 14 December 2010 - 07:51 PM


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 am not persuaded by this--one would never feel compelled to ask if a work in a different media (movie or book or painting) was the greatest based on these criteria--popularity and financial exchange value. I realize the comparison does not run on all fours (so to speak), but nor is it the case that "we all . . . love it to some degree" unless "to some degree" allows for an awful lot of latitude. Of course if someone is posting on a thread on "Nutcracker Chronicles" likely that person DOES love it to some degree. But that is not all balletomanes, not even all American balletomanes.

For myself, I have very much enjoyed some good-to-great performances of Nutcracker (and been bored by middling ones). I usually admire the stagecraft of the few productions I have seen. I can even get carried away by a great performance--for a few minutes anyway. I also danced in it as a child which I found unspeakably thrilling. But even as a child I did not exactly love the ballet or, at least, it was far from my favorite. (Too many children, not enough dancing: that's what I thought when I was child--plus I wasn't crazy about the Christmas theme though I realize that would not be a common reaction; even now, when I am more open to the ballet's charms than I used to be I am not mad for the children--or adults pretending to be children. if I had to choose my favorite choreography for children then it would be Balanchine's Midsummer's Night Dream. Nutcracker--not even close.) I last saw Nutcracker at NYCB about 5 years ago--it had some extraordinary highlights (including a great Sugar Plum Fairy in Ringer), but ... uh ... I did not regret that I would only have to "sit through it" once.

Is it a cultural phenomenon in the United States? Sure: I completely agree. I was vaguely under the impression that it does not play the same role in other countries and cultures and indeed only started playing that role here in the wake of Balanchine's version. And of course "here" means a country whose ballet companies need "moneymakers" and perform Nutcracker in the midst of a larger moneymaking Christmas machine. I am sometimes skeptical that more than a very few people going to see Nutcracker ever experience it as any kind of gateway ballet, leading them to attend other ballets: it's a holiday tradition, which is a different thing. They go back to Nutcracker the next year.

I do think it is a great work and I do like it and admire it. I also attribute its lasting power and even its flexibility to one thing: Tchaikovsky's score. Set the same story to Minkus or even Adam--well, we would not be having this conversation. (Maybe Delibes and we would...) Of course the story inspired Tchaikovsky (who, in turn, inspired Ivanov) so, sure they all get some credit for the template--but really I think Tchaikovsky takes the palm here. This is one of ballet's greatest scores.



There was nothing I was trying to persuade you about, I was trying to get some answers on the Artwork Nutcracker, which is pretty much taken for granted with people at this season in the U.S., as you mention. The kind of answers I wanted to give me some perspective have nevertheless been gleaned by making the question in this form, which I already said was 'awkward'.

one would never feel compelled to ask if a work in a different media (movie or book or painting) was the greatest based on these criteria--popularity and financial exchange value.


Yes, one would, if there were a comparable, virtually ritualistic single work like Nutcracker in opera, music (in whatever form), fiction, or any other art. 'Most popular opera' is not the same in opera as Nutcracker is in ballet. Nutcracker is a 'season', it is a forgone conclusion in almost all American companies, and many European ones. But thanks for answering, as you were responding to what I was asking just like the others, and making interesting remarks. That you said it is a 'great work' is important and you also said the primary reason is 'Tchaikovsky's score'. I agree it's a great score, but not as great IMO as Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty.

I do not agree with you that it is an unreasonable thing to ask the artistic merit of something which is clearly way beyond any other ballet in popularity. No offense, but if you objected to that, you didn't have to answer (which you did quite richly for my purposes).

And what I said about 'we all love it' referred only to BTers and other balletomanes, the 'to some degree' definitely including me quite obviously, since I'm the one who is 'shocking' for not having seen it but twice live and not planning to go back anytime soon.

I am sometimes skeptical that more than a very few people going to see Nutcracker ever experience it as any kind of gateway ballet, leading them to attend other ballets: it's a holiday tradition, which is a different thing. They go back to Nutcracker the next year.


That happens to be the whole point. I know of such people, and it does not occur with any other ballet, any single opera, any symphony, any novel, any piece of classical music, or any other kind of artwork. There are not vast numbers of people who go to see 'Swan Lake' and never any other ballet. In that sense 'Davidsbundlertanze' and 'Swan Lake' and 'Giselle' and 'Theme and Variations' and 'Chaconne' and 'Songs of the Auvergne' and 'Namouna' are all in one of two categories, and the Nutcracker inhabits the only other category BY ITSELF. Therefore it is reasonable to get some sharply critical response (anew) to the work itself. I obviously don't think all that much of it, and I only started the first post by saying that it was 'the greatest' in terms of power of a certain sort. And as a 'moneymaker', it far outstrips SL or SB. This does not make the work the 'greatest work of art', but some may have the impression that it is, and while 'moneymaking' may seem crass, it is also a fact, and something that is worthy of intellectual questioning, as in any other endeavour. Anyway, thanks for telling us your experience with Nutcracker.

#19 Drew

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Posted 14 December 2010 - 09:33 PM

I do not agree with you that it is an unreasonable thing to ask the artistic merit of something which is clearly way beyond any other ballet in popularity. No offense, but if you objected to that, you didn't have to answer (which you did quite richly for my purposes).


I think you are right that it is reasonable to ask the artistic merit of something as popular (or, at any rate, ubiquitous) as Nutcracker, but I think it can also be reasonable to query the premises of that question at the same time--so that's why I responded. I do realize your question intended to open discussion.

I am still a little uncertain how one should think about the rise of Nutcracker an a ritualized holiday experience when the larger context of the ritual in the U.S. is Christmas marketing. I feel that way even if the ballet always had a marketing or product placement role as apparently the original production did.

Perhaps oddly, I also don't find it terribly popular among my acquaintances: they don't take their children to Nutcracker, and they don't go themselves: these include people who do and people who don't go to theater/musical performances etc. Of course, it would not be the first instance of my being out of touch with whole swatches of American life :). I don't think I know one person attending Nutcracker this year unless one long-distance Facebook 'friend' counts. And that person has children IN the Nutcracker.

I do think that certain works in a number of art forms get picked up and commodified/popularized in ways that seem to have not much to do with the art form itself.'Everyone' who goes to the Louvre races to see the Mona Lisa, 'everyone' recognizes the opening chords of Beethoven's Fifth...and, as far as flexibility goes, it's been used as the basis of a disco tune among other things (I say nothing of the enormous number of 'samplings' of the 'Ode to Joy'). Not the same as Nutcracker? True, but these are still works whose popularity/recognizability has come to impinge on any experience of them outside of that popularity/recognizability--for me, that's what has happened to Nutcracker, at least in the U.S.

#20 Mel Johnson

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Posted 15 December 2010 - 02:42 PM

With a standard like Balanchine's staging of the work near to hand, I find viewing it over the years gives me a good metrology for gauging a company's standard, but that could be true of any standard production of any work. With Nutcracker, however, it is also useful for estimating the future of the company. Many of tomorrow's company dancers are party children, Polichinelles, Candy Canes, etc. in the present season. When one goes from a Candy Cane to a Flower or dances the Harlequin pas de deux in the first act, you notice these things. Now the Balanchine staging is proliferating, and more places will be able to use it as a yardstick to measure their local company over the years, and thence to the Mother Version at NYCB!

#21 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 15 December 2010 - 09:55 PM

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.


It's not only you who has changed, bart...the ballet has changed, the society has changed, the WORLD has changed. Just look at your surroundings from back when you saw the ballet for the first time. There was not a lot of competition-(movie theaters, some TV, and done...), and the stage was a powerful force of entertainment. Now look at the kids who are the same age you were at the time, and see which things interests them the most...electronic gadgets that have the whole world comprised inside...no need to get out to be entertained. If they can barely take their eyes off their smart phones, well...you get the idea. Also...do kids still like old fashion fairy tales...? I'd be curious to see how popular Snow White is today compared to 50 years ago.
As for the ballet, you're totally right. I've been watching Balanchine's version for quite a few years now, and I've NEVER been moved the way I was when I saw the DVD of the production with Kirstler. Since I got it I've been playing it almost non stop-(particularly the FABULOUS Snow Scene and the STUNNING Waltz of the Flowers. This DVD even made the magic to get me in the mood to take my Christmas tree and nativity set and set them up. And again...you're right. This is NOT the same production that I've seen here or at City Ballet when I tried it there.
We're getting more and more skeptical, and as balletomanes-(yes, I'm a confessed one.. :thumbsup: )-we don't have the advantage of the neophyte audience to get to try the ballet as something new. How can you be completely relaxed if you're unconsciously x-raying the whole choreography because you know it by heart or if memories of better productions come to mind...?
We don't have to deal with making sense out of stories with abstract ballets, and with some others we still identify with given the currency of their stories, for which they're more "human"...dealing with lies and unfaithfulness in a relationship-(Giselle) or going crazy at watching your teenage daughter dating her first boyfriend behind your back...and one you don't like-(La Fille).
But the Nutcracker is too pinky and surreal to try to incorporate it to our modern living. In this chaotic world of wireless life, such a story is certainly hard to digest-(Coppelia fallowing its steps), and if on to of all this you grew up viewing it as a seasonal thing, then it's even harder to pair it with the other warhorses.

#22 4mrdncr

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Posted 15 December 2010 - 10:17 PM

GREAT, or NOT? NO as ballet, YES as funder:
First let me say that I,too, have seen VERY limited numbers of Nutcrackers live in my lifetime--3 or 4?; have no great desire to see it more; and believe its score (and the succinctness of that score) is what helps make it sustainable. I also agree with an earlier post about the 'sadness' (pathos?) inherent in Tchaikovsky's score, and actually prefer those sections myself. (In fact, I think I once posted that the Act2 PDD's music was a favorite because it was so different from the frothy sentiments expressed in the rest of the act.) However,as a dancer and/or balletomane, I will never think Nutcracker is great. But, as a popularizer of classical anything (music, ballet/dance, theater), I applaud The Nutcracker's greatness--the moreso because of its importance to the financial viability of so many ballet companies.

APPEAL, or NOT?
I also agree that Nutcracker's appeal is mostly to families with children who either are dancing in it, or related to those who are, or are simply looking for a holiday event away from the TV. Nutcracker's importance to the bottom line of most companies in the USA is a consequence of that 'family appeal'. But that popularity (both physically and metaphorically) is another reason why I tend to avoid performances; and why I also don't particularly like a SB with lots of small children dancing in it--I pay to see professionals, not recitals. Corollary question: Are Nutcracker perfs done to provide a more 'professional' version of a recital for child dancers and their watchful parents? That is, a school can say they are professional, "because they do not have end-of-the-season recitals, but still dance Nutcracker as if it is one? (Of course in the professional schools the Nutcracker-as-recital is not necessary since other performing opportunities exist.)

But maybe my aversion to attending or viewing Nutcracker as a regular holiday event is ultimately because I was raised in Japan and did NOT grow up with it. In fact I have very odd memories of dancing Nutcracker then and later:

-the most vivid memory being my first rehearsal with London Festival Ballet when they came to tour, and my being so totally culture-shocked to hear English in the studio instead of French and Japanese, that for a very long moment, I couldn't understand what the AD was asking me to do!

-During the party scene, I remember being more worried that my African-American and half-Japanese friends got the same chances to dance front and center as I did (as a white, blue-green eyed blonde)and being surprised at the reaction when I tried to raise the issue. The later battle scene was dark (ie. difficult to see where you were going with the various lighting and other FX), scrunched, and ultimately boring to do (march, march, scrum, scramble, retreat, line up, march march)--I used to long for the cannon to go off so that it would be over soon (and we could do some 'real' ballet).

Having little dancing to do in the 2nd act when I was small, my best memory was lying on the floor in the wing and feeling the 'whoosh and swirl' of the Waltz of the Flowers as they jeted by/over me and off or onto the stage. Later, when I was older and dancing in Snowflake Sc., I remember the speed, intricacy, and concentration necessary to appear light and spontaneous while avoiding inadvertant brushes with colleagues or slips in the cascading flurries.

AFTERMATH:
When I stopped dancing, I stopped doing or seeing Nutcrackers. Ten years later, I went to BB's only because it was supposed to be the most popular in the USA (ie. seen by the most number of people)--so I thought I should. I liked it, but haven't seen it since. I have filmed other Nutcracker performances, but because it was work, I could remain detached. I've never seen NYCB's, because I couldn't bring myself to pay the $ necessary for a trip to the City just for that. Or maybe it's because I don't particularly like crowds of children at close-hand, though seeing all the cute outfits on them did have its charms.

CONCLUSION:
This thread posed an interesting question, and some very interesting, thoughtful, and informative answers. Thanks for asking; thanks for posting.
My final comment,though, is to quote a t-shirt I once saw Angel wear that most thought was an eye-exam chart, but on closer inspection said: EAT, SLEEP, DANCE, REPEAT: NUTCRACKER in the shape of a Christmas tree. I still smile when I think of it.

#23 papeetepatrick

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Posted 16 December 2010 - 10:20 AM

4mrdncr, that was superlative, and tells us much. All these responses are fantastic, and come from such a wide spectrum of people involved in ballet: balletomanes, dance critics, dancers, sharp thinkers.

I'll say more later, as I've got to run out, but 4mrdncr, I think you have finally made me understand the Grand Pas de Deux: I will never be interested in hearing it as a stand-alone piece of music, but I do now see it in the context of all the Sweets, and the contrast it makes. It could therefore be the case, that although the mood does change considerable and become more serious, it is still kept simpler: A 'big' sound for a Nutcracker pas de deux, full of complex raptures and transports, as we have in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, would not be appropriate here.

Wow. I didn't think anybody could pull that one on me!

I like Angel's T-Shirt too.

#24 esperanto

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 06:30 AM

4MRDNCR:
you wrote: I also don't particularly like a SB with lots of small children dancing in it--I pay to see professionals, not recitals

so what's about all the children in the Russian ballet companies: Raymonda, corsaire, Pharoah's Daughter, etc?

#25 Mme. Hermine

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 06:52 AM

I like children just fine as long as they're not dancing adult parts!

#26 Mashinka

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 07:01 AM

4MRDNCR:
you wrote: I also don't particularly like a SB with lots of small children dancing in it--I pay to see professionals, not recitals

so what's about all the children in the Russian ballet companies: Raymonda, corsaire, Pharoah's Daughter, etc?


They put the children in to give them valuable early stage experience.

#27 Helene

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Posted 19 April 2012 - 08:55 AM

Early stage experience not only includes performing, but observing how the theater works: including all of the social intricacies, how to change costume and put on make-up -- Merrill Ashley wrote in her book that she was asked to be in the corps, had no idea how to put on makeup, and had to get help from someone else in the corps -- what all of the backstage people do, how to behave, and how to focus in the midst of lots of activity.

Petipa ballets are hierarchical, and they include the youngest trained child to the oldest character dancer. Virtuosic male variations were added for younger dancers in the big pas de deux, so that older princes, like Pavel Gerdt, could partner. They were very long in their originals -- their audience was in no rush -- and there was a sense of pagentry. In the last century, they've been modernized and stripped down, and they often lose their balance and proportion. In some productions the kids look like filler, because the context is lost, but the original audience understood how they belonged.

The only reason Balanchine was in the Imperial Ballet School in the first place was that his mother was determined to get her children accepted to an Imperial School regardless of subject, since they would be guaranteed -- or so she, like most Russians, thought at the time -- a paid education (which happened) and then lifetime employment with the Tsar (which did not). It was only because he couldn't get a spot in the naval school that his mother sent him, along with his sister, to apply for the ballet school.

For him ballet was a drudge of classroom exercises -- there were no tickets for kids in the school back then -- until he became a student performer, and then his interest bloomed.


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