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2015 Nutcracker performances December 12-13 & 18-20

Jack Reed

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As I have for many years, I attended the opening show last night and had an even better time with it than experience led me to expect. The large clarity of the dancing throughout - looking a little larger on the modest stage of the Athenaeum than it might elsewhere - is only hinted at in some publicity shots Helene has posted for me; still images don't show motion, or not much, anyway, with the exception of the pair of images of the Snow pas de deux, which show views of the dancers just a few counts apart, and they don't begin to hint at the energy and vitality maintained through the dance scenes, beginning this year with the new staging of the Battle scene:

What I saw last night was quite remarkable to me - I know and love Balanchine's* battle, and chuckle along with the audience when the cannon fires chunks of cheese at the evil mice - what a considerate, gentle war! - but Duell and Seymour evidently have in mind a dance Nutcracker, and there was little hint of reality-evoking pantomime or theater event here. While this scene was danced, it nevertheless strongly conveyed force and conflict by the constantly and rapidly changing - unrelenting tempos here - pose and posture and patterns of the dancers onstage.

It helped that the two sides in this contest were clearly differentiated by excellent costuming - dance costuming, though, no giant rodents represented, although I think the soldiers may have been a bit padded: Their names in the cast insert are all female, and those stout, armed-forces midsections fooled me as I watched. Praise be to the Wardrobe Committee - The Guild of the Golden Needle!

So: The most notable thing about this Nutcracker was - the battle?! No, the most notable thing was the clarity and point - dramatic and musical - of all the action, including the party scene, and the flow of beauty across the stage.

Particularly rewarding, in the traditional four-part Sugar Plum pas de deux placed in the penultimate and climactic position near the end, was the dancing of Meghan Behnke, clear and large and sharp and modulated into lush softness and fullness, all at the same time, filling out her phrases. She sure lit up my spirits, and I only wish she had lit up just a little herself, my only quibble. Perhaps betraying some first-night tension? Not least the able and graceful support of her partner, Ted Seymour, not to mention his own dancing in the Cavalier's variation, choreographed by Daniel Duell, must have contributed to the security of Behnke's lovely performance.

She appears briefly early in Act II, introducing it and its cast and "hearing" the pantomimed story of the Battle - from Marie, as this ballet school is more than a little short on good men, she's accompanied by a full-grown Nutcracker Prince, Michael Haverty - and her lovely movements there were an accurate harbinger of what was to come in generous proportions near the end.

It was a full evening, though the time flew by. A full experience; and I remember much more than I've posted, and I'll try to share some more of that. Were any other BA!-ers there? Tsk!

*It slipped my mind that the choreography of the Battle in Balanchine's Nutcracker is by Jerome Robbins.

Edited by Jack Reed
(giving credit where credit is due)
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Further thoughts have come: There is some "business", in the theatrical sense, with the Stahlbaum's two hapless maids in the first scene, before the party gets underway - which frankly I think a little silly - and the credits identify Behnke as one of them; I suspect she is the first one we see, and the one who makes her part's movements especially fluent, when called for - she also knows how to drop the gifts she's arranging and take a (choreographed) spill, landing rather hard on, well, on probably the best part of her anatomy to land on - and very "legible" - meaning her movements carry back in the theater.

But other roles are much more important than the maids. Nina Montalbano animated the Snow pas, giving it musical vitality in its moderate tempos - it's an adagio, not a full pas de deux, to the Pine Forest music - with Kramer Snead (the Dr. Stahlbaum of this cast), who evidently gave her everything she needed to give her part its smooth flow, and more.

The Waltz of the Snowflakes which follows is danced to a vigorous and shapely performance of the music - I say "unrelenting" about the tempos here not because they're driven along - they're not, and they're not dragged out either - but because they're a little faster than what would still sound "right" for the music. And the performances (on record) sound like they're chosen for their spirited inflection and transparent texture - you hear the parts of the orchestra as you don't always from a pit orchestra. And the other reason I enjoy this section is the beauty of the dancing in it; you'd still get a lot if, God forbid, you couldn't hear a note.

In the Divertissements, Shea Smith and Kramer Snead (his third role) satisfied in Spanish Hot Chocolate, but Alexia Boyd, tall, long limbed, easy to see with all those dimensions, clear, with strong line, suffered a little by comparison in memory with another BC dancer who brought more cumulative, sinuous flow to Arabian Coffee years ago. No reservations at all about Grecia Delgado and Elliott Nunez, both a bit short, but springy and sharply pointed in the short, quick Chinese Tea. And David Riley earned his applause, leading the Russian dance (here called Russian Kvas) with four boys, though this especially energetic dance may have been "a hard act to follow" for Marzipan Sweets, led by Taylor Richard. Lacking a Mother Ginger, this production nevertheless realized the magical appearance of an endless string of little performers we see emerge from her skirts in the Balanchine version by the simple device of having a few Polichinelles on stage form a short line to reach offstage and return to the center augmented by a nearly endless stream of similar ones.

This light-hearted number was a good set-up for the Waltz of the Flowers, very ably led with subtly moderated energy by Dana Coons - the choreography here also makes reference, for those if us who know it, to Balanchine's, in that Coons, like his Dewdrop, dashes in and out, coming quickly down a diagonal lane formed by two lines of corps girls, for her quick solos. But for those who don't know Mr. B's setting, the reference isn't lost: Just listen. In Duell's hands, these dancers do pretty much what Tchaikovsky asks for.

In the Grand pas de Deux, he asks for more, and here Duell and his colleagues yield to Balanchine himself, and we see it here where many would prefer it to be, the grand climax of the evening.

And then the traditional Finale music, with its own warmth and reprises of all the numbers of Act II.

Years ago, the Sugar Plum Fairy followed everyone off stage alone, slowly making a lush, grand arabesque, which I interpreted, with a nudge from Tchaikovsky, as proclaiming, as she had in the beginning of the Act, "This... is my realm!" * But this year she ascends grandly, supported by her Cavalier, and grandly sails off, airborne, after the others have made their way a terre, and I haven't decided whether the "less is more" implications of the old ending, which could make us listen more, rather than giving us more to watch, wasn't more effective. Either way, this "old" music's possibilities are never exhausted; choreographers, dancers, and audiences alike can keep returning to it. Inexhaustible: What's your definition of greatness?

*Coming back to this after re-viewing BC's 2004/2005 video, I see I left out that Sugar Plum makes a slow jete' into the wing after her arabesque, and it's this combination that gave the effect I described; the arabesque is still there, and it's the jete' that's replaced by the lift, just a little bit grander.

Edited by Jack Reed
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Friday, December 18, 2015 7:00 PM



Another visit, another cast, some revised roles?





Ted Seymour brought more eccentricity and a "lighter" mystery to Herr Drosselmeyer this evening than Joshua Ishmon had a week ago, and Seymour's grander movements were more consistently phrased for legibility, while Ishmon had achieved a more sinister presence. Both "work" for me.





The novel Battle got underway with Marie dancing in unison with a corps of black mice, and this seemed dramatically odd to me - unanimity? Not conflict? Or was she entranced, under their power?





But in due course the Soldiers arrive, led by the Nutcracker; and after the remarkable dancey projection of force and conflict, the battle ends, pretty much according to Tchaikovsky's sound effects, with the thrown shoe, the Nutcracker's running-through the distracted Mouse King, the cutting away of the Mouse King's crown and his spastic death throes, climaxed by the crown held triumphantly on high by the Nutcracker.





The scenery having made its own multiple exits - some settees formerly dragged obviously off by thick white cords now motivated by invisible forces - Meghan Behnke, the little Marie of the 2012 production, now grown into the Snow Queen, quite beautifully introduces the next scene, in the adagio ably supported and complemented byAndrew Wingert; good a this was, it proved to be a set-up for the appearance of Dana Coons as the Sugar Plum Fairy, with the excellent Kramer Snead, in Act II.





Coons was a delight to see - intermittently, running in and out, according to the role - as the principal in the Waltz of the Flowers a week ago; here she and her partner had the stage to themselves more continuously, early, again tantalizingly, in Act II and more fully in the mostly-Balanchine pas de deux near the end.





Along the way, the excellent Molly Brown gave a more effective and sinuous rendition of Arabian Coffee, although maybe with a hint of rote-ness about it; well sometimes, we remember this is a school. (Uh, hunh. But mostly, we don't think of it.) But then Jade Eitner and Alexandr Allen's rendition of Chinese Tea suffered some by memory of Grecia Delgado and Elliott Nunez last Friday, who had more point and bounce.





Then finally, Sugar Plum, even more inspired choreography, Balanchine's - or mostly - some of this is seen in the Royal Ballet's videos, so I'm wondering what's from Sergeyev's notebooks or Balanchine's memories of his boyhood - and this brings me to that idea that rarely pops up when I'm watching a performance: Watching Coons display, with flashes of some of her own personal pleasure her and there, maybe with how the music gives her this here and then that next, or so it looked - this magically developing flow of movement - no effort - where does this come from, but from what we all hear? - well, anyway, the idea came: This girl needs a contract! Won't somebody give this girl a contract? So here was another reminder, of a different kind from watching Molly Brown's "Arabian Coffee." A school? But for a fortune, a company!



Edited by Jack Reed
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Saturday, December 19, 2015 2:00 PM

At matinees of this production, there's generally a number with very little bunnies, this year accompanied by a few mid-sized rabbits as - well - co-ordinators. In a collection of old images from this year's Nutcracker poster on the school's web site - in the top row, it's the third one from the left - you can get some of the flavor it's had sometimes.

The new Battle scene seems to be a work in progress; the introductory unison business with Marie and the Mice escaped my eye this time, and the Soldiers mixed it up with them sooner. So, some cuts and filling in here and there, some dramatic tightening.

With another appearance of Dana Coons and Kramer Snead in the SP roles and Meghan Behnke with Andrew Wingert in the Snow adagio, this may be a high point of the run, and indeed was taped by a small crew; not least of my pleasures with it was Shea Smith as the most satisfactory "Arabian Coffee" so far: flowing, clear, and present; listening. Nina Montalbano graced Marzipan as soloist, and Emily Fugett reprised her soloist role in Waltz of the Flowers from last night; this number is mostly unison in the first and last of the three sections, where the flutes play, but in the middle, where we hear only lower instruments, she has independent choreography, and as she progresses through the sections, she progressively distinguishes herself, with solo bits coming and going toward the end.

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Here's a summary recently posted - in 2021 - of the history of these choreographies.  This seems  as good a place for it as any, since I describe what we see in more detail here, and the summary refers to this earlier 2015 season:


December at Ballet Chicago


Nutcracker Whodunit!?


From its beginnings in one studio in 1996 until today’s annual multiple performance run at Athenaeum Theatre, Ballet Chicago’s delightful homegrown Nutcracker has evolved as a choreographic collaboration, and for our December Director’s Corner we thought it would be fun to zero in on just “Whodunit?” for each of the ballet’s scenes and dances.




Party Scene
The Party Scene is the conception and choreography of Ms. Blair, who did the “Dreamy and Stern” maids, the entrance of Dr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum, the entrance of Marie and Fritz, and the entrance of the guests. The designation of each of the guests (Senator and Spouse, Harried Parents, Movie star, etc.) is Ms. Blair’s conception and staging, as is the entrance and stage action of Herr Drosselmeyer. The beloved Children’s March is Ms. Blair’s choreography, as is the charming Gallop. The Soldier Doll dance by Mr. Duell is his only choreography for the Party Scene – Columbine is Ms. Blair’s as are the Little Dolls. The new “Miniature Soldierettes” dance is a collaboration between the two of us. Her choreography continues into the Children’s Lullaby and Parents Dance, on into the Party Scene exit, including Dreamy and Stern’s brief “sneak drink”, Marie’s entrance falling asleep with her Nutcracker doll in her arms, and Drosselmeyer calling in the Mice for their pre-Battle Scene dance, one of the most cherished to perform. With the express intention of including the entire school, Ms. Blair did two versions of the Mouse dance – one with BCSC members only, and the 2nd with the Baby Mice for matinee performances.


Battle Scene
The Ballet Scene began as choreography by Mr. Duell only, a brief but action-packed encounter between only the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. As the school grew we decided to expand our Battle Scene, and in 2015 invited Mr. Seymour to contribute new choreography for Soldiers and Mice, combining this new choreography with Mr. Duell’s existing choreography. Thus in our current Battle Scene, all choreography for Soldiers and Mice is Mr. Seymour’s, and all choreography for the Mouse King, Nutcracker, and Marie is Mr. Duell’s. This collaboration saw two choreographers working in close tandem for a seamless Battle Scene.


Snow Scene
The majestic Snow King and Snow Queen Pas Deux, and the swift-moving, pattern-filled Waltz of the Snowflakes are both the choreography of Mr. Duell. 





Opening and Introduction of characters in Land of the Sweets
This grand 10-minute segment of moving pageantry, starting with tiny Angels and ending with Sugar Plum Fairy’s exit, is all Ms. Blair’s choreography, which includes Sugar Plum’s Attendants, Drosselmeyer, and Marie. 


Hot Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, Caviar, and Waltz of the Flowers are all Mr. Duell’s choreography.


Marzipan and Polichinelles are Ms. Blair’s choreography.


The Sugar Plum Pas de Deux is the internationally renowned choreography by George Balanchine, who coached Mr. Duell in it himself. The Cavalier solo, however, is Mr. Duell’s choreography, since Mr. Balanchine’s version does not have that solo.


This segment begins with Mr. Duell’s choreography for Hot Chocolate, Coffee, Tea,  and Caviar, with Ms. Blair’s choreography for Marzipan and Attendants interwoven, along with her choreography for the final gathering of all characters.


As they say “teamwork makes the dream work!”


As we go dancing on,


Daniel Duell

Artistic Director


Patricia Blair

Associate Artistic and School Director

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