I think I was one of the few people who was underwhelmed by the ABT / Ratmansky Nutcracker when it was first presented. Most of my issues are theatrical rather than choreographic, though I have issues there as well. (Note: I saw the ABT / Ratmansky Nutcracker in its first season, so some of the details may have changed since then.)
There isn’t a lot of magic in the production’s sets: the Land of Sweets, for instance, appears to be located in a tidy but minor manor park behind some unexceptional wrought-iron gates. Ho-hum. Some of this may be due to budgetary constraints, some to the scale and stage machinery of the BAM opera house. (Some of the choreography looks like it was purpose built for a smaller stage, too.) It doesn’t help that some of the big set pieces – the battle with the Mouse King, e.g. – are a narrative muddle. And I could live without the bees in the Waltz of the Flowers. The joke wears thin really fast.
What I found most disconcerting was Ratmansky’s decision to have Clara (I think she’s Clara in the ABT version) and the Nutcracker Prince almost die at the hands of the Snowflakes, only to be rescued at the last minute by Drosselmeyer and carted off to the Minor Manor Park of Sweets. Now, there is a bit of menace in the Snowflakes’ music, and Russian winters are notorious in their deadly power (just ask Napoleon) but the interpolation of a near-tragedy takes the dramatic focus off of the triumph over the Mouse King and the Nutcracker Prince’s magic transformation. AND it makes the Nutcracker Prince’s mimed retelling of the battle total nonsense theatrically: at that point, wouldn’t he be recounting his just-minutes-ago near-death experience?
AND IT JUST KILLS ME (sorry for shouting) that the kids have to be rescued by some grown-up just when we should be glorying in their own agency and their independence from adult ministrations. They slew the evil villain on their own, thank you very much. My absolute favorite thing about the Balanchine version is that there are no human grown-ups in the Land of Sweets and that the Sugar Plum Fairy treats Marie and the Nutcracker Prince as if they were her peers and her honored guests, not kids deposited in her charge. A good Sugar Plum treats the Prince’s narration like it’s the most gripping battlefield report she’s ever gotten. It’s not even clear that the children ever return to the Stahlbaum’s cozy bourgeois milieu: when we last see them they are taking off in a magic sleigh for who knows what adventure and are still very much a royal pair.
For related reasons I’m not enthusiastic about Ratmansky’s handing over the big pas de deux over to Clara’s vision of her grown up self dancing with a grown-up beau. It signals a return to the real, un-magical, grown-up world. It’s not an unreasonable direction to go in, of course; I just prefer it to be magic all the way down. Ratmansky’s version is very resolutely focused on real, lived human life. (The Sugar Plum Fairy is, if I recall correctly, a non-dancing role. She seems kind of like an auntie.)
If you want to see a different (but not outré) take on the story, by all means go to the ABT version — there’s definitely good stuff in it. If you want to revel in traditional Nutcracker magic, the NYCB version might be a better bet.
I happen to like it when there are tons of kids in the audience, especially when they are really, really into the story.