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Kirov Ballet in D.C. - Nutcracker

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This is a controversial production. I expected to dislike it intensely, fan that I am (not) of "updated" classics, but I have to admit I was intrigued. The designs were children's storybook brought to the stage -- grotesque, imaginative, at times magical -- and I thought the choreographer tried to make his steps compliment the designs. The result wasn't always to my taste, and there were parts that just didn't make dramatic sense (it's one of those dark Nutcrackers.) And there are bits of every choreographer he's ever seen in it -- but that's often what young choreographers do.

I haven't yet talked with anyone who agrees with me, though : ) What did you think?

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Copied over from Links (thanks, Ari):

The Kirov Ballet's new production of The Nutcracker by Mikhail Chemiakin and Kirill Simonov is reviewed in the Washington Post by Sarah Kaufman.

Of all the bizarre sights onstage as the Kirov Ballet performed "The Nutcracker" at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday night — the prominently displayed animal carcasses, the costumes festooned with cockroaches, the ballerinas' bump-and-grind — none delivered a shiver quite like that of the Queen of the Snowflakes. Stabbing her stiletto toes into the Opera House stage, she clawed the air and snarled big, black-lipsticked snarls, resembling no natural force so much as greasepaint rock star Gene Simmons of Kiss.

At their queen's command, the other flakes — taking a page from the Goth dress code, they were clothed head to toe in black, and studded with white puffballs — closed ranks around young Masha and her Nutcracker Prince. Things didn't look good for the pair until a decidedly ill-tempered Drosselmeyer appeared, berating the inky villainesses and shooing them offstage like a cranky Broadway director.

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I agree with Sarah's review, this production was a disappointment, although a bright spot was the Waltz of the Flowers. While one can appreciate the goal of "refreshing" the tried and true, this effort fell short and could be dubbed the drab and dreary. All of this could have been tolerated had the dancing been of the calabar for which the Kirov is famous. Let's hope that next week's Swan Lake will provide the opportunity to showcase these superb artists.

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I attended two performances, Tuesday's and tonight's. There isn't much I have to say about the production. The enduring appeal of The Nutcracker — pace Jennifer Fisher — can be summed up in one word: Tchaikovsky. People love the music, and they go to the ballet hoping to see a visual equivalent, or at least something that coexists happily with the score. When a choreographer/stager decides to leave Tchaikovsky behind and go his own way, as Mikhail Chemiakin did here, he creates a schism between the aural and visual experience that is the opposite of what ballet should be. I don't see the point of this, but given the number of "dark" Nutcrackers around these days, I guess this is a minority view.



This version needed two pages to summarize all the goings-on, but some of them I failed, in two viewings, to see onstage. For instance, the program says that in the second act candy scene, "doctors [stand] ready to pull rotten teeth or cure a sick stomach." They may have been there, but if so weren't given any mime to tell us what they were.



Nonetheless, this ballet is stuffed with incident, so many that sometimes two or more things are going on onstage simultaneously, and you're not sure what to watch. Even when the narrative is clear, the point of it all remains a mystery. Why are the Stahlbaums and their guests so odious? Why are the snowflakes murderous? If this were a Soviet-era production you could guess that Chemiakin was lampooning the bourgeousie. Maybe he is. Maybe this is his commentary on the New Russia. :yawn:



With all this going on, choreographer Kirill Simonov doesn't have much to do, but what he does do is undistinguished. His choreography relies a lot on big Bolshoi-style split jetés and rolling around on the floor (the snowflakes lie on their backs and kick their legs in the air, like children having a temper tantrum), plus some sweeping arm movements in the Waltz of the Flowers. Many of the second act divertissements are danced in triplicate, which gets monotonous. The otherwise classical second act pas de deux (the one usually danced by Sugar Plum) is vulgarly interrupted by some naturalistic kissing, and ends with a saucy Masha taking her Prince's hand and giving him a look that clearly says, "Cm'on, let's do it!" and the two of them running off together.



Except for the Princes, it's impossible to take the measure of dancers given this kind of material. Both Princes I saw, Andrei Merkuriev on Tuesday and Leonid Sarafanov tonight, were elegant and precise. Natalya Sologub did all she was asked to do as Masha (but what is the story with her violently red hair — is this a wig, or has she dyed it?), and Daria Pavlenko (on Tuesday) and Tatiana Tkachenko (tonight) glowered malevolently as the Queen of the Snowflakes. Incidentally, no announcement of any kind was made of Diana Vishneva's replacement by Sologub at this evening's performance (Vishneva is apparently a no-show for this engagement). The Kirov may be used to treating its audience with contempt, but the Kennedy Center is not, and it knew of the replacement on Tuesday. The only reason I'm sure that Sarafanov actually danced tonight is because I checked out his photos on Marc Haegeman's site (thanks, Marc!).



Well, on to Swan Lake. At least I know what to expect there.

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Well let me tell you it sure is not a Nutcracker to see on Christmas night!!! I am a very open minded person the sky is the limit but this....lost me.....there was so much going on that at some points for the first time I had to read the program to see....where is this going (with all the sub plots going on)?I did get the whole idea of the interpretation.

It is not my kind of interpretation but I must say I am fascinated that there are choreographers out there that will go to that extreme. By the end everything seemed to take a sudden turn and the whole mood changed by the pas de deux. After the whole tone being sad you then see the nutcracker and Masha run into each others arms, which is refreshing. The dancers themselves were amazing there were certain ones I saw that stood out. I had to look past the choreography.

I thought the sweets dances were weak...not much there...and the Mother Ginger dance wow was that bizarre. I felt that the solos and variations that Masha danced were strange....not even really in with the music. I think most of all the solos she did were out of place with the music. Also the electric orange hair did not endear me. She individually though an extraordinary dancer. Fritz scared me!! As did the revolving ball projected during what is normally the christmas star, or spirit of christmas :grinning:

There were points where I would think yes I know what he is trying to do but it just didn't end up to my liking. I can go for new, differnt, and strange but I just don't think I cared for this version.

I am really looking forward to seeing Swan Lake though, because I think the dancers of the Kirov are amazing and I know that Swan Lake will be...Swan Lake. I also remember loving Sleeping Beauty they did here a few years ago.

Well I certainly don't think this is a production to bring the kiddies to :unsure:

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I'm of very mixed mind about this production. On the one hand, I agree with every point that's been made here, and with Sarah Kaufman's review. I don't think this Nutcracker was ready for export. But looking at this as the work of a young choreographer, I found what he was doing very exciting and I'd like to see more of his work.

First, any version of the Nutcracker that "discovers" that the Hoffmann tale is darker than the music and is lured down that path is going to have problems, because the music is telling a different story. End of story. And for the Kirov, which always puts the music first, to go down the "wow! look at this! it's grotesque!" path will lead to insurmountable problems.

That said, I liked Chemiakin's designs very much -- it's the only Nutcracker I've seen where the divertissements are actually related to the "sweets" they represent (the Chinese dancers enter in teapots) for example, and the overall look is the kind of imaginative grotesquerie from children's storybooks. It sets the stage: everyone, except Masha and Drosselmeyer, is fat. Even Fritz is stout -- a loutish boy. And because of this, he doesn't look like a man playing a child's role (something I don't think works). He's oversized, like everyone else.

The designs are so grotesque and the libretto is so dark -- what is the choreographer to do? Make grotesque dances, or pretend that the designs aren't there and do a conventional version? I agree with Sarah Kaufman that there's not enough ballet in this ballet -- but I think Simonov made the right choice, given the hand he was dealt. And I'd make the case that his off-classical dances are grafted onto a classical base. They stray far from it at times, but they always come back to it.

The choreography looks as though Simonov had many models -- as Ari noted, there's a bit of this and a bit of that. The Sugar Plum Fairy is a heeled shoes role, like Lilac in the new/old Sleeping Beauty, for example. BUT he doesn't just take something superficial -- like the heeled shoes and costume. He understands the idea. Sugar Plum has her role -- it hasn't been distorted. She just doesn't dance the solo, but everything else is there. (I agree with everyone that the character dances were awful.)

The Waltz of the Flowers -- that, and the Prince's solo are the only purely classical dances in the whole ballet -- is Ashtonesque, reminiscent of the ballroom waltz in Cinderella, with those Ashtoninan arms en couronne a la swoop as a motif.

Masha is an awkward adolescent -- I was reminded more of Neumeier than MacMillan. She begins too shed her awkwardness in the pas de deux. That, and the non-classical dancing (lots of loopy moves, shrugged shoulders, rubber ankles) becomes more classical as the pas de deux progresses.

I liked the snowflakes. Think "In the Middle Somewhat Elevated" in Goth dress, not in the movement vocabulary, but the way Forsythe will have dancers do their bit and then drop out of performing mode, into casual mode. The original headdress of cotton balls looked just right here (the flakes are dressed in black floppy tutus, black toe shoes, black tights, with cotton balls sprinkled over them.) I liked the idea that snowflakes would misbehave. It's a storm (I didn't find it murderous, and Masha didn't find it very frightening, and that's one of the many dramaturgical faults of the production. Was there a battle of the mice?)

Drosselmeyer reminded me of the Legat caricature of Cecchetti as a grasshopper. Why he's always scampering about, carrying huge platters above his head I don't know. But that's what happens in children's books, too. There are always odd people -- grown ups are odd people -- who don't make any sense, but children don't seem to mind. I also had no idea why the rat king was a cardinal (Not having read the Hoffman in years, I don't remember if there's a cardinal in it). Or why he didn't die in the battle. Or why he's in cahoots with Drosselmeyer.

There's a happy ending, of sorts. Masha and the Prince get to stay in the Kingdom of the Sweets forever. As ornaments on top of a cake.

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Somebody wrote:

Productions which lay aside the original theme (of the Vsevolozhsky libretto), allowing that the ballet is merely a paean to childhood, or a Christmas pageant, or a Freudian exploration of emergent sexuality, already cross over into the region of the bland, or worse, sour Nutcracker.

Oh, I think it was me!

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I skipped this production because I didn't want to see a dark story danced to Tchaikovsky's music. Now I'm wondering, does The Waltz of the Flowers as it's staged here cohere with the rest of the ballet? It sure doesn't sound like it. Does it make any kind of emotional sense? What sort of set is that danced to? Thanks.

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The Kingdom of the Sweets is a more conventional -- less dark -- set. The impression is of lots of icing (there's an enormous cake that's brought out.)

I think the idea was to make the Kingdom of the Sweets ideal. If that's so, then it make sense for the Flowers and the Prince to be purely classical dancers. But this is only a guess.

kfw, despite my comments above, I"m not sure I'd recommend this to someone who has to drive far to see it.

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I got a phone call in the middle of posting yesterday, didn't quite finish, and didn't get back to it.

The production's biggest sin, perhaps, is that it doesn't show off the company. You wouldn't have known this was one of the world's great ballet companies.

One other imaginative aspect of the choreography -- in the procession of the guests, as they exit the party (out the back door), you see only their backs, and they're clothed, from head to toe, in grey cloaks. Each cloak and hat combination is different. There's a dance in the Moiseyev repertory where the dancers' bodies are also obscured by clothing, and they move very quickly, giving the appearance of gliding. He's taken that dance, and given it to the guests. It's quite funny -- and between the scurrying and the grey clothes, they really do look like mice and rats, and set the scene for the battle scene. But Masha isn't on stage and doesn't see them, which unsets the stage -- if she doesn't see them, she can't dream them.

If I had gone expecting to see a Nutcracker, and/or expecting to see great dancing from a great company, I would have been screaming with disappointment. My positive comments are because I think Simonov has promise as a choreographer. He takes from here and there, but he knows what he's taking and he puts it in context. Now, he may well develop in the direction of the loopy-slouchy-moderne style he used for Masha rather than the classical style he used for the Flowers, but I'd still like to see other work from him.

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I went to today's matinee. I don't always agree with Sarah Kaufman's take on things, so I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised. The best thing I can say about the performance is that I'm glad I saw it...once.

The sets and costumes were terrific (I loved the snowflakes but not the Snow Queen), with the exception of Masha's costume, which I thought was dreadfully bland. Also, her red-to-fuschia hair color was frightful with the pistachio-green costume, and the first-act ponytail was even worse. Yikes.

Uncharacteristically for the Kennedy Center (felt like I was at the Wang Center!), there was a bit of a problem with the scrim toward the end of the first act--it landed with a loud clank coming down at one point and then got stuck on something on the right side of the stage on the way back up.

I agree with all the others that the choreography was just not satisfying.

Notes on the program:

(E)Lena Vorontsova, one of the older dancers featured in the mid-1970s movie "The Children of Theater Street", is listed as a teacher now.

The local children who performed were mentioned but not named, which I thought was odd.

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That's right, koshka, since a few years Elena Vorontosova is working with the corps de ballet. In fact as a prominent member of the corps she appears in almost every video of the Kirov. In the "Sleeping Beauty" video with Kolpakova and Berezhnoi she dances Coulante in the Prologue.

One should never despair Alexandra :wub:

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Well, the Kennedy Center has been trying to get a Nutcracker for some years now. ABT's wasn't a success. The Bolshoi's wasn't a success. And, although I was a bit disappointed that I didn't hear any shrieks from the toddlers at the matinee Saturday, I don't think this one is a keeper either.

Question -- you, out there, artistic directors, choreographers -- do you know who your audience is? Have you ever gone to a Nutcracker and stood in the lobby and watched who goes in? You've got your balletomanes who want to see CLASSICAL DANCING. And you've got your kids, in their best Christmas clothes bringing their favorite toys to share in this joyful experience. They do not want to see a new, improved Nutcracker that probes the depth and depravity of the rat-infested human spirit. There is an audience for depravity and psychological realism that would undoubtedly be fascinated by yet another "discovery" that the Nutcracker libretto and the ETA Hoffman story (upon which it is NOT based) are different. Go find it.

I feel much better now.

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Guest Alan Lamb

Reading all of the posts on this Nutcracker has been a fascinating experience for me. What astonishes me is the repeated use of such adjectives as "dark", "grotesque", "depraved", "sinister" etc in describing what I essentially found to be an entertaining and visually stunning theatrical production that I don't consider as representative of any of the above adjectives. (If it is insisted that the term "grotesque" be used to describe this ballet then it must be used in the same spirit as the romantic writers of the 18th C used it: i.e. a way of blurring of the lines between the animal and human worlds. This is pretty standard fare in most 18th C. fairy tales so I don't think Chemiakin has somehow not quite gotten Hoffmann right). On the whole I think the epithets are a bit extreme. And then we whould ask whether :) angels are really that much more fun to watch than :devil: -ish creatures?

While the choreography may not be the most sophisticated, then again the Nutcracker is not exactly the best vehicle to showcase sophisticated new dancing. The children I spoke with at the Kennedy Center who participated in the production and those who came as an audience seemed to have had lots of fun with the costumes and the characters of the story. The Chemiakin/Simonov production is, remember, an adaptation, of an old fairy tale. The Hoffmann/Dumas story certainly has elements of fright and magical thinking in it but is this motif atypical for fairytales from Hoffmann to Brothers Grimm? I think not. I don’t find the story to be muddled because Drosselmeyer has ambiguous magical powers. He is the essence of intrigue and secrets. I think the kids get it.

I also don't quite believe that this production lacks as much "ballet" air time as has been suggested. If one compared, measure for measure, this production with other full-length productions I think there might be a few surprises; namely that this Nutcracker has just as much dancing as any other. On the other hand it may be true that the sheer abundance of visual activities in this production distract one from single-minded concentration on the dancing. We are definitely not looking at a bare stage with dancers simply outfitted in tights! Then again I suppose I simply don’t believe that a spare stage with two dancers jumping as high as they can is the essential experience of ballet (gymnastics maybe!).

When it comes to the question of the "classics", I am also surprised that the Mariinsky has been taken to task in so many posts for violating it's trust as a "museum" for classical repertory. (Whether or not that is the right mission for the Mariinsky is another story altogether). As many have pointed out in their posts or reviews, the dancing that Simonov has choreographed is not revolutionary or "brilliant" in any way: rather the dancing seems to nicely fit this adaptation of Petipa's work. The Chemiakin/Simonov variation has pantomime and exaggeration and theatrics and color and the bustle of life and after almost fifty years of only having the option to watch the Balanchine ballet here in the US, I think Chemiakin/Simonov have done well in tackling this "sacred" text while remaining “true” to the music and the story line. The inventiveness of the production should certainly be able to both capture and hold the attention of children and balletomanes alike.

I hope this ballet will enjoy a long and interesting life!

PS: the performance on the evening of December 27 featured Irina Golub who danced beautifully and did not have a single shocking red hair on her head! :D

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Welcome, Alan. I'm glad to hear from someone who liked it. The wigs/hair style differed from dancer to dancer. Nadezda Gonchar, at the Saturday matinee, had dark auburn hair and a more subdued hairstyle. She also wore a turquoise dress -- the kind of dress one might have worn to a dance in the 1950s. A rebel. I liked her. (She's also one of the strongest turners I've ever seen, and had beautiful feet.)

I think the designer was trying to be grotesque -- hence the stout adults and outsized Fritz, the rat dressed as a cardinal, the boar's head that would not be approved by the Boar Hunters Association -- and the plates of picked over bones after the party, etc. etc. etc. As for the lack of dancing -- literally everyone I've talked to has said something along the lines of "I feel cheated" or "I'm so disappointed," "You'd never know it was the Kirov," "It must have cost a fortume; what a waste of money," etc.

The comments about the lack of dancing are probably because this site was established to discuss classical ballet, and that's the interest of the members. I agree that there are a lot of productions of the ballet that have little classical dancing in them, but that's not what one expects from the Kirov, and there are "adult" or "sophisticated" productions that do have sophisticated dancing. Not new dancing, or modern dancing, but there we get into what one expects from a Nutcracker or a ballet performance, especially by the Kirov.

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Someone just sent me an email saying s/he didn't understand my posts, that it seemed at first I said it was good, and later posts indicate that I didn't like it. I thought I'd clarify (and this would have been perfectly ok to post!)

I did like the designs, as design -- not as appropriate to a Nutcracker. And I'm sympathetic to the choreographer for having to create dance that suited a design and a concept that wasn't his, and was interested in what he did.

So for what they did, I think they did it well. But don't think it's a good production of "Nutcracker." It would have been fine in another ballet -- that didn't have a score with a totally different tone. Sorry to have been ambiguous!

(I really liked the big shoe.)

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I feel much better now.

I'd been waiting for someone to let it all out. ;) Who commissioned this thing anyhow? Gergiev? He obviously at least OK'ed it. How does a conductor, of all musical people, commission a production so at odds with its music base??

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Another couple of notes:

The Prince in Sunday's matinee, Leonid Sarafonov, was terrific and looked to be about 17 years old. (Of course, so does Anton Korsakov, and he's 23, so...)

Another thing: The Nutcracker does not hold the same place in the ballet world in Russia _at all_. It is not really considered a holiday ballet (is performed year-round) or even a ballet especially suitable for children, although it does often seem to be performed around holiday time by students of the Vaganova School. So perhaps a really different Nutcracker is not really as much of a big deal there.

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A review by Jean Battey Lewis in The Washington Times:

Beautiful Swan

(Although it's headlined "Beautiful Swan," it's a brief preview of Swan Lake and a review of Nutcracker.)

This well-known Christmas ballet — which ended a five-day engagement Sunday at the Kennedy Center's Opera House — was given a massive and quite ugly staging by the designer Mikhail Chemiakin, who also created the sets and costumes and rewrote the libretto, making it murkier and sardonic in tone.

    This was a "Nutcracker" in which the designer was king, and the choreographer, a young and inexperienced Kirill Simonov, was faced with the daunting task of trying to make a meaningful contribution through dance. Not surprisingly, he seldom succeeded.

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