Mel Johnson

Blast at Nutcracker

72 posts in this topic

Well, most people's annual experience with this one is nearly done for this cycle, so I just thought I'd air some of my Loathings, Hates, Dislikings, and generally harrumphing about what I'm seeing in the Nutcracker productions today:

I LOATHE:

1. Pedophile Drosselmeyers. Enough said.

2. "Updated" productions. Nowadays, we are likely to see commentary by a choreographer on anything irrelevant to the general atmosphere of the work. If some idiot brings in the Wehrmacht and renames the family Stahlhelm, I bring out tomatoes.

3. Narrators - shoot them all. If your audience is so dull that they cannot comprehend stage action, or if your production is so esoteric that no one can tell what's going on, you have other problems!

4. Underproduced productions. See here, this is a spectacle! It's a ballet-féerie, which means enchantment ballet. If you can't afford all the magic, don't try it on the cheap. It doesn't work!

5. Pas de Deux to the Act I transformation music. Pavlova's been dead and gone a good many years now, and the Snow Queen/King (let them melt into oblivion) are only a memory of her vaudeville act set to this music. See the above Loathing. If you can't fill the transformation music with a transformation, don't do this ballet! Choreographers have to be told when to step back and let other stage artists work their magic!

I HATE:

1. Drosselmeyers who stay in after the transformation of the Nutcracker into the Nutcracker Prince. The toy is a doppelganger for Drosselmeyer himself, and when it transforms, Drossie should be gone!

2. Spontaneous renamings of characters. Anything German or French or Russian will do. If this tendency keeps up, Fritz will soon be Heinrich Himmler Stahlbaum!

3. Nephews - get rid of them. They are a distraction to the story.

The Nutcracker is (Nicholas!) Drosselmeyer's doppelganger, he doesn't need two!

4. Funereal tempi

5. Snow Queens and Kings as noted above.

6. Drosselmeyers who seem to be ready to burst into

Giselle at any given moment.

I DISLIKE:

1. Costumes in Act I that range all the way from the 1770s to the 1900s in the party scene. There are picture books, you designers out there! Look at a couple now and again, eh?

2. Arabian harem dancers as Coffee. I'm getting really tired of these supermarket houris. Can't anybody find anything else to say about the Levantine world than the obvious?

3. Adults taking parts which should be rightfully played by children.

HARRUMPH!

Little girls playing little boys.

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Yes, most Drosselmeyers should be relegated to the 'dustbin' accompanied by the Joker of Swan Lake.

The "Nutcracker" is not high on my list of favorites and recent Drosselmeyers have pushed it way down--I come away feeling that a child protective agency should be notified.--Added to this is Paul Parish's recent musings on what Odette is really doing at the end of the Swan Lake Act II PDD when she is performing those petits battements!. Pretty soon I shall take Balanchine's advice---close my eyes and enjoy the music.

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Mel said:

2. Arabian harem dancers as Coffee. I'm getting really tired of these supermarket houris. Can't anybody find anything else to say about the Levantine world than the obvious?

Next year, our company will be dressing the Arabian dancer in full burka/abaya/chador. At least, that is what my husband thinks; this year, the Arabian was danced by our daughter.

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I'd much rather see Snow pas than any transformation scene I've been subjected to!!!

I wish Ashton's version could be revived -- it was only Snow and Sweets, no muss, no fuss, no mice, no party, no Drosselmeyer.

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Then you haven't been subjected to the right transformation scenes. See Loathing #4 above.;)

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I hesitate to ask, as I might not actually want to know the specifics, but what are they doing to Drosselmeyers out there in the big world?

One would think that in the current athmosphere the tendency would be paranoidicly away from anything even remotely resembling something that would warrant child protection officers...

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Jaana, it relates to the adults doing children's parts and D. not disappearing when he ought to issues. Many productions have a Drosselmeyer hovering, hovering about the Nutcracker Prince and Clara/Marie/Masha/whatzerface. Productions where he actually is inserted into the pas de deux for the "kids" make me especially squeamish! Some versions have him actually barring the girl from getting to the "nephew" and sets up an uncomfortable, "why doesn't he want them together?" state of mind. Both the Baryshnikov and the Peter Wright RB production are particularly icky in this regard. Yes, he SHOULD hug the kids in the party scene, but they should be kids, and he should be on his best avuncular behavior. After all, he's the Hero of the ballet, he just gets transformed (back) into a kid, if you follow the original libretto, and some of the background literature to it.

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If you eliminate the nephew (unlike the NYCB version) -- How does the action proceed through the rest of Act I after the party scene? I must say this is a fascinating subject, for I haven't seen many Nutcrackers besides numerous at NYCB and in that version the Nephew is quite integral to the action and theme.

Eliminating the Nephew would clearly change the entire feel of production. In the NYCB version, where the Nephew is a protagonist, almost a miniature version of Sleeping Beauty is set up, and a Theme is suggested of the sublimation of Marie's growing awareness of a dark and almost erotic world through Romantic Love in the person of the Nephew. Thus, the unmasking of the Nutcracker reveals the Prince/Nephew, and thereupon (and only therupon) can the young couple proceed to the land of Snow, ultimate symbol of purity.

Further, by preserving the Nephew and Marie's childish "falling in love," the Act II pdd, with its grand "tragic" musical theme, works well in the work. Criicisms of the Tschaikovsy score that the tragic music in Act II is out of place are deprived of a basis. With the Sugarplum and her Cavalier a romantic couple writ large at least they fit in somehow to the production, and even Candyland begins to make some Toy Thematic sense, sort of a childish Aurora's wedding.

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In the NYCB production it isn't SO bad, but still maybe in the harrumph category.

In talking to several people who were there at the time, I learned that part of the reason Balanchine chose to have a nephew in there was to showcase the talent of a wonderful child dancer/actor named Paul "Rusty" Nickel (later soloist, ABT). He padded the Nutcracker part to create a cognate in the "real world" of the party, but if you cut that part out, and the interpolated entr'acte from Sleeping Beauty, very little, in fact nothing, would be lost from the original intent of the libretto. Another part of the reason for the addenda was that Balanchine also wanted something more for his original Drosselmeyer, Mischa Arshansky, to do. While this is a part of the usually-execrable practice of "making sense" of a fairy tale (who are the Grinches who thought this trend up?), it was much less offensive when done by Balanchine. And what tragic music? It's a descending G scale! Furthermore, they're mice, not rats.

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I don't care what the book "calls" for but, as for the ones at the New York State Theater, as an old farmer neighbor in Maine once pointed out, "If it has a tail longer than its body it ain't no mouse."

Accident (Costumer ignorant of zooloogy) or private joke on "Les Petits Rats de l'Opera" and Mr. B's alleged nickname as a child at the Maryinsky theater?

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I can't speak for how they are in Maine, but let an old farmboy from Orange County, NY tell you that the tail longer than the body holds true for a Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus), but a Black rat (Rattus rattus) has a tail the same length as its body, that being one of its field marks - and if you see one, call the County Agricultural Agent - they're the ones that carry Yersinia pestis (plague)! Now while I can certainly speak about Rats of America, I have no idea what the Mice of Russia look like.

Anyway "Les Petit Rats" is part of the Paris Opéra School tradition, but I never heard of it being transferred to the Mariinsky. Anybody? Balanchine was "monkey" or even "Jocko" for awhile, after he played one in La Fille du Pharaon. Could be a Karinska joke, though. She knew the Opéra.

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I believe Francis Mason's book mentions Rat as a nickname for Balanchine.

He was apparently called this as a young boy at the Imperial School, because of his teeth and the fact that he sniffed a lot.

Girls as Party Boys is necessitated by the lack of boys in ballet.

I suppose it could be changed so that all the families in attendance at the party happened to only have girls, and then we could have tomboy girls (with horns/guns/drums, whatever) chasing the girly girls (with their dolls).

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Please.

This thread is, to my thinking, entirely too dyspeptic and critical for the subject at hand.

This is *Nutcracker*--a beautiful score to a holiday ballet. That's it.

I agree that years of over-analysis and let's-come-up-with-something-new have made it an easy target for curmudgeonly response.....

On the other hand:

This ballet is the only way that many companies/schools/dance studios can stay in business.

Whether or not you like a Snow Queen and King, it gives dancers performance experience, jobs, and a chance to change roles. It is beautiful music--many companies do not have the technical gimcrackery to catch your attention, so: they insert a pdd. Not a heinous thing.

Girls are often used in male roles because of the paucity of boys in ballet classes--what, the company is not supposed to do a party because there are no boys available? Girls often do not like being cast in the boys' roles, but sometimes it is a chance for a child who is undergoing an unfortunate body stage to still dance and be part of a production.

Ditto for the mice/rats. (Who cares what they are? Really, now......)

It is *fun* to dance, *fun* to be part of a procuction, *fun* to tie a ribbon on your tail so your parents know which one you are (and hope that the Wardrobe mistress hasn't seen you.....) In professional companies the boys doing Mice have loads of fun--sometimes you need a lift when doing 35 performances of the same ballet in a month.....

This is supposed to be a holiday ballet which is beautful, makes children excited about the magic and the music and the overall festivity....They may not remember much about the perfrmance (my son remembered the red carpet in the theatre with great delight, even though Baryshnikov was dancing...)

Yes, there is a place for scholarly correctness. There is a place for historical exactness (good luck telling a director that half his costumes are inaccurate when they tell you they want more party dresses in a particular style. Ain't gonna happen.) I appreciate a beautiful production as much as the next person (alright, I'll be honest: I appreciiate a beautiful production *more* than the average person, given what I do.)

Some productions are gorgeous but they have stinky choreography. Some have a beautiful look and are historically correct, but no one dances much. Some are obviously a product of Too Much Time on the Analyst's Couch. Some are just the best a company or studio can do given their resources and you know, I say hats off to them! They are introducing children to performing, they are giving audiences a respite from care, they are bringing something beautiful to people who might need that lift, that night.

I understand the reason for dissatisfaction in some corners--I say enough, already. Don't go if you don't like it. Don't spoil people's joy in something that they are achieving. Give the dancers a break--they can't help if they are wearing Louis heels when they are supposed to be wearing flat dancing slippers.

Ballet has enough naysayers out there as it is. If you don't like a particular production or company or choreographer, stay home. Keep quiet. Find something that you love and let us know about it. I'd much rather read all the funny threads on this board---no one takes serious umbrage at the comical: dancers or audience or parents--than harumphing or grumbling about *Nutcracker,* of all things.

We will have the reputation of a board filled with dyspeptic, curmudgeonly old crocks.

Not my style. I did love the idea of Arabian being done in a burka!!!! Thanks!

;)

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All of my objections, reductio ad absurdum, go back to one of the earliest lessons in Theater Production 101: If you can't produce it, don't do it! I like the burqa idea, too - sort of Martha Graham-y.

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Oh, this discussion has made me smile. I have to agree with Mel on most of his comments -- (but sorry, I kinda' like a snow queen).

The mouse/rat commentary actually made me laugh.

Let's see... January 12th? I think some "Nuts" are only 10 months away.

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I like the Vainonen snow pas--I'd much rather see that than a hospital bed with ruffles glued on to it rolling its dreary way around the stage to cymbal clashes--it reminds me of Tchaikovsky's overly dramatic music for those silly wooden pull toys in Act II of Swan Lake.

I also wonder if there is any Nutcracker in the world that lives up to all of those exacting specifications.

I could go on about what is/isn't in the book, whether or not they're mice or rats (who cares?), &c, but it would probably give me wrinkles and gray hair, which frankly I'm surprised I don't have already! ;)

Juliet, thank you for the balanced post!

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As Doris said, this discussion has been a treat. I haven't seen nearly enough Nutcrackers to complain, but to be dyspeptic for a moment just for fun ...

In general I loved the Royal Ballet's production as shown recently on PBS, and I’ll make it a point to catch Cojocura the next time she’s in D.C. But two things -- the wigs on the snowflakes make them look like my grandmother. And isn't Clara a little underdressed at the palace? Sure she's dreaming the whole thing, but she doesn’t just watch the performers, she dances with them. That nightgown jars.

And what's that "step" where the Sugar Fairy makes as if to plunge into arabesque but stops on a dime with both arms forward? It struck me as odd and wrong for the music.

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I've always liked the Nutcracker productions that my dance school put on, but this year was a little different:

1. We had party girls, boys, guests, and then...teens. It's not like the teens really did anything, so I didn't care for them much.

2. This yeah one of the alumni came back and danced as Jack Frost. That was actually pretty cool, like he summoned the Snow Flurries and Snowflakes. And right before the intermission, at the end of the act, you saw him come back and blow a bunch of fake snow down before the lights went off.

3. The Spanish was a solo. It was probably the worst part, since I think she was suppossed to have a partner, but he wasn't strong enough.

And the night I went, a girl played Clara/Marie's brother(is it Michael?) but I know that a guy played him in another show. She was pretty good.

Also, as to the mouse/rat/ question, we always had mice AND rats. The mice were pretty much helpless, a whole crew of little things guarded by Mother Mouse, against Michael and the big, mean rats. (I think rats are cute, TOO. Why are they the bad guys?)

That's probably just what we did, though, so I don't know whether yours are mice or rats!

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Actually the mouse/rat argument goes back to the original story, which is entitled "Der Nussknacker und der Mausekonig" by E.T.A. Hoffman, that's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King". It doesn't mention rats anywhere in the story. But if your production had big mean rats chasing poor defenseless little mice, that's about the way it is in the natural world. If you have mice, you don't have rats, and vice versa, and if you have chipmunks, you don't have either one, but they don't have chipmunks in Germany.

Clara's brother is usually Fritz, but with the renaming frenzy that seems so popular nowadays, he could be called anything, and hardly anybody would notice.

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In the NYCB production it isn't SO bad, but still maybe in the harrumph category. 

In talking to several people who were there at the time, I learned that part of the reason Balanchine chose to have a nephew in there was to showcase the talent of a wonderful child dancer/actor named Paul "Rusty" Nickel (later soloist, ABT).  He padded the Nutcracker part to create a cognate in the "real world" of the party, but if you cut that part out, and the interpolated entr'acte from Sleeping Beauty, very little, in fact nothing, would be lost from the original intent of the libretto.  Another part of the reason for the addenda was that Balanchine also wanted something more for his original Drosselmeyer, Mischa Arshansky, to do.  While this is a part of the usually-execrable practice of "making sense" of a fairy tale (who are the Grinches who thought this trend up?), it was much less offensive when done by Balanchine.   And what tragic music?  It's a descending C scale!  Furthermore, they're mice, not rats.

Mel Johnson,

Rusty Nickel was my brother. As you may know, he died way too soon at the age of 33. I wanted to thank you for your comment about him. I showed it to our mother and it made her day, possibly her year. Thank you, Joan Nickel Craig

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Thank YOU, Ms. Craig.

Rusty was a light that failed too soon, and I still remember him with fondness. I had the sad honor of receiving your father's phone call to Joffrey to inform Basil Thompson that Rusty had died, and word of it was all over the company then. He had touched many of our dancers' lives and made them better.

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This is supposed to be a holiday ballet which is beautful, makes children excited about the magic and the music and the overall festivity..

Wow...this is an old thread, but i just can't stop reading it...Well. i guess i really have a totally different vision of the "Nutcracker" from national Ballet of Cuba. First, over there is not a seasonal ballet, hence it is performed as a regular ballet with productions off december, as there is not official acknowledment of Christmas. Then, there are no children involved in the production... all the characters are played by adults, "a la" 80's Bolshoi style. Also, no dark designed Drosselmayers. He is just a respectful old uncle without any complex freudian characterization. Finally, no "love story" feeling among characters whatsoever :(Clara/cousin, Clara/Nutcracker and so on) .So, straight to the point, the public's whole expectation from a Nutcracker performance is to go see 2 technically superb Fokine-based PDD, the"Sugar Plum Fairy" and the "Snow Queen/King".

:thanks:

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-I'd much rather see that than a hospital bed with ruffles glued on to it rolling its dreary way around the stage to cymbal clashes

:thanks:

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Thanks for rediscovering this thread, cubanmiamiboy -- even if it is (for North America) a bit out of season. I love Mel's mock bah-humbug! introduction, though I also understand where Juliet, in her long post defending the institution that Nutcracker has become, is coming from.

For me the balance works out like this:

Best : the score; the rising, pulsating Christmas tree (Balanchine); the snow and music in the Snow-flake scene; the Sugar Plum pas de deux.

Worst: All versions I've seen of the mouse/rat battle; Maries/Claras who are too old for the part; all Freudian influences, or attempts to over-darken the Drosselmeyer character; those characters who just sit around the edges of the stage looking bored during the Act II divertissement.

Most fascinating viewing offstage: watching the faces and body language of first-time kids in the audience; also, watching the way the sit-up-in-your-seat excitement that most kids bring to Act I slowly fades as the very long (for kids) afternoon or evening proceeds.

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I LOATHE:

... Pedophile Drosselmeyers.

...If some idiot brings in the Wehrmacht and renames the family Stahlhelm, I bring out tomatoes.

... Narrators - shoot them all.

...the Snow Queen/King (let them melt into oblivion)

... If this tendency keeps up, Fritz will soon be Heinrich Himmler Stahlbaum!

... Drosselmeyers who seem to be ready to burst into

Giselle at any given moment.

:rofl::rofl::rofl: i most admit that, although having a different opinion about the Snow PDD and the children, i couldn't stop laughing...!!

That was great, Mel!

:tiphat:

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