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Drew

Nutcracker (Performance)

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I had the opportunity to catch the new Yuri Possokhov Nutcracker (w. sets by Tom Pye, costumes by Sandra Woodall, lighting by David Finn, and projections by Finn Ross) towards the very end of its run. I was only able to see it once and my thoughts about it are rather scattered--there are many details and even one big element (exactly how the Rat King was defeated) that I didn't catch, but I had an enjoyable time, was delighted by much of the dancing, and admired many aspects of the production, though I had questions about a few others.  I will try to describe it as best I can. I should mention that I saw no synopsis anywhere--and I could have used one to help clarify a couple of points. But maybe it was on some hand-out I missed.

First, this is genuinely a very distinctive production. I am not a Nutcracker aficionado, but I'm pretty confident this is different from other productions out there while still being recognizably Nutcracker. Though the company has put the emphasis on "high tech" in its publicity, what most struck me about Possokhov's vision was that, like his Don Quixote (which had many moments in which text appeared in the projections and in which we see Don Quixote reading not only at the beginning but at the end of the ballet), this Nutcracker bears the stamp of a very literary self-consciousness. Marie (after Hoffmann's heroine) is not only given a Nutcracker by Drosslemeyer; he shows her a book which, one  infers, must be telling her the story of the Nutcracker and Mouse King. When the rats first surround young Marie at night she partly frightens them off by slamming the book down on the floor--which, it has to be said, might work with real rats. Later a gigantic dream version of the book also plays a role at the end of the battle between Rat King and Nutcracker. In Act II the kingdom of the Sweets is more like a Kingdom of Stories with a Gigantic Book projected at the back that changes "pages" as it were with each new divertissement. I could not resist checking through opera glasses during some of the divertissements to see what the text on the pages was showing (when there was text) but it was not obviously connected to the dancing, so I stopped. (If I had to guess, I would assume translations of Hoffmann, but I have no idea.) As the pages change the images on them also move, but it was all much less fussy than I had anticipated--greatly to my relief. So it is a high-tech Nutcracker in the sense that it uses projections and the like alongside a lot of traditional stage effects (gigantic furniture somewhat as in Balanchine's production, though in this case a chair and a cabinet rather than a bed play the biggest furniture parts, and dancers flying on wires) but all the stage effects are in service to the idea of books as a window to imagination. Just in case you don't get the point the whole Stahlbaum family is nearsighted--Marie and her parents all wear glasses at the party-- though Marie is without them during her dream.  I rather appreciate this 'literary' concept theoretically, and the ballet does find a way to make it theatrical--but it's a quirky approach especially as it is not exactly the case that Nutcracker, whatever its literary sources in Hoffmann and Dumas, arrived at its cultural role in the United States due to its status as an eerie children's story.  For Americans it's a Christmas ballet-entertainment first.

The setting is early nineteenth-century Germany--more or less contemporaneous with Hoffmann. One review I read described a projection showing Hamburg from the sky during the overture, as if from a flying sled, concluding with special effects suggesting Drosselmeyer flying in on his sled. I saw nothing like that the matinee I attended. In fact, I saw nothing at all. Before the overture some special effect snowflakes came down steadily across the screen/scrim on the front of the stage--but looking odd because missing from one quarter of the 'screen' front of stage which was just blank and and also not very magical because the screen was just sort of dark grey not suggesting a night or evening sky. The whole thing looked exactly like what it was--computer generated snowflakes on a screen. I have no idea why any of this was the case --technical screw ups that afternoon? change of heart on part of creators regarding overture?--but though I'm happy to hear the overture on its own, I think I'd just as soon they have a beautiful front drop showing the Stahlbaum's home or some such rather than nothing as the performance begins or those screensaver snowflakes beforehand. Even at intermission, the 'front curtain' projection was very minimalist with just the edges of snow covered trees at the side of the screen. Once Act I gets underway, everything picks up with scenes of people on sleds or skiing as well as skating across the stage and then on into the party. There is even a clever effect where you see Drosselmeyer unload his gifts from the front of the house and then the same scene from the inside of the house where the party is taking place. (These are not done digitally--they  are three dimensional mime scenes).

The whole party scene seemed to me to go by faster than usual but I'm not sure I can say what if anything was actually cut--perhaps some of the puppet show? Marie was played by an Atlanta II dancer on pointe (Remi Nakano) and very charmingly, but otherwise the children were children. Drosselmeyer (played by Nikolas Gaifullin at almost every performance of the run) is an older 18th-century style gentleman in a wig and a fantastical cape--silvery grey on outside but lined in blue  with an astrological map of of the cosmos  etched onto it which is echoed more or less subtly in elements of the sky framing the house when he first appears and in other scenic effects later in the ballet. As this implies, he is rather the ballet's master of ceremonies and at key moments I thought perhaps even a stand-in for the choreographer. He performs a few magic tricks as well as a few leaps that rather belie the aged appearance--and after all why cast Gaifullin if you aren't going to let him dance?--but do somewhat work in the service of establishing his magical powers. Later during Marie's dream the cape is turned inside out and you see the cosmic Drosselmeyer (so to speak) directly. The party is fairly benign and follows the familiar pattern with some nice psychological touches. In the spirit of the whole ballet's rather "literary" quality, Drosselmeyer's puppets are actually puppets he is showing the children in a little puppet theater while life size dancers who dance somewhat upstage of the children surrounding the puppet show seem to "represent" for us, the actual theater audience, what he is showing them, so in a way we are watching two puppet shows--the children watching the puppets being presented by Drosselmeyer, and the actual ballet dancer doubles of that show for us (which also puts us in the position of the children). The Nutcracker Doll wears a light blue uniform rather than a red one and it actually was the ugliest looking Nutcracker doll I have ever seen in a Nutcracker production which is, I guess, true to the story. Fritz refuses the Nutcracker as a gift but as soon as his sister wants it decides he wants it too--then when Drosselmeyer gives it to Marie is upset, which sort of motivates his destructive behavior when he breaks it. As the party wraps up, you see the very sleepy children taken home on their sleds...one rather charmingly falls off and his mother runs back to fetch him. So all pretty engaging.

Marie comes downstairs to get her Nutcracker doll who has been stored in a cabinet and the whole dream scenario begins clearly directed by Drosselmeyer who partners Marie through much of it.  She leaps onto a chair in the middle of the room at a certain point as everything transforms. This is where projections came in very obviously and what I assume one reviewer (Allison Gupton) was referring to as a "steam punk" aesthetic --shiny gears appear whirring over the stage and such like. As I say I only saw this once and wasn't terribly well oriented where to look etc. -- I kept waiting for growing Christmas tree action, but that turned out to be very secondary to other effects...as the little chair with little Marie on it disappears and an absolutely, weirdly HUGE chair with an only very slightly bigger Marie on it appears (Airi Igarashi) smack in the center of the stage. The cabinet in which the Nutcracker Doll had been stored also gets replaced with a huge counterpart and from inside it emerges the full sized dancer Nutcracker to lead the battle against the rats. All the stage business with the emergence of the gigantic furniture and the glowing clockwork imagery was more striking to me than magical or even pretty, but striking it definitely was. 

The Nutcracker leading a combination of soldiers and (life size) puppets defeats the Rat King--with an actively involved Marie's help too--but I'm embarassed to say I sort of missed exactly how. I was probably admiring the rats who had quite vicious looking masks (the company says it used the mask maker who worked on the Harry Potter movies, but I can't find the name!) and appropriately disturbing-looking costumes with even the rat hair looking sharp and mean. I did think their pale grey tights and ballet slippers a little bit undid the effect of the rest of the costumes--perhaps that was on purpose to make them less scary to little kids?? After his defeat (not death) the Rat King retreats and his exit is through the (now also gigantic) storybook book that is lying on the floor and that opens onto what must be a trap door down which the dancer disappears. It's as if the ballet is telling you this is all just a story--or reminding you where Marie read about the Nutcracker and Rat King. Then the Ugly Nutcracker solder is revealed to be the handsome Nutcracker Prince (Sergio Masero-Olarte)  and we get a lyrical pas de deux and snow scene. 

On other threads discussing other Nutcracker productions, I've been reading a lot of criticisms of having Marie and Nutcracker prince weave in and out of the corps set pieces in productions of Nutcracker (snow and flowers)  but Atlanta Ballet is a modest sized company. The snow corps is 12 dancers--in that context, I think having Marie and prince weave in and out was a great solution and with two such warm and wonderful performances as we got from Igarashi and Masero-Olarte I was very happy. This scene had a number of other delights as well, including the dancing of the corps and what may have been the most beautiful costumes in the entire production--white bodices--well it's snow of course--and all but transparent, shiny skirts with silvery streaks suggesting icicles. Drosselmeyer appears with his sled to take Marie and the Prince on their journey but immediately after entering the sled they rise up and fly high into the air and across the front of the stage where they hover as the act comes to a close. THIS--which as best I can tell was using technology Taglioni might have used, i.e. wires--got the biggest response from the audience of all the ballet's stage effects. And it really was a delightful moment though I couldn't help wondering why Drosselmeyer even bothered with the (admittedly gorgeous) sled.

Act II has the arrival at the land of the ...stories. (This is my term; as I wrote above I couldn't find a synopsis.) If I followed the action correctly, then to the music which usually accompanies the Nutcracker Prince telling through mime about the defeat of the rats and Marie’s role in it, an actual attack by the rats occurs and here, in Act II, he defeats them, once and for all killing the Rat King. This act has no sugarplum fairy let alone cavalier. It takes place in Marie and her Prince's Kingdom I guess, though really it seems to be Drosselmeyer's and he is rather a master of ceremonies for what follows -- participating in various ways, often playfully or even ironically, and using his cane as a kind of semi-baton/semi-magic wand of sorts. I found all the Drosselmeyer a wee bit cloying here and there (and I adore Gaifullin), but my main difficulty with this way of setting up the act is that it becomes a bit unclear who/what the divertissements are for since Marie and the Prince don't stay around to watch them. (Though food trays actually play something of a role in the Act I party, desserts certainly don't seem to matter here.)

We get a relatively typical Spanish dance, a Chinese fan dance with a female soloist in a very lively leaping solo, a more or less standard Russian dance for two couples (though the women are actually on pointe--semi-disguised by having shoes and tights died to look like the dancers are wearing boots) and always, in the background, the images of the pages turning to accompany the mood/theme of the dance. An audience favorite was Arabian that had three bare-chested men dancing in slow acrobatic formations with a snake (a woman in a black body suit covered in scattered golden scales and who rather wonderfully emerges from and returns into a giant basket). The shepherdesses (or Marzipan) was completely transformed--and it will sound the silliest of the divertissements but at the performance I attended was probably my favorite: a Hen and a Cock protecting their eggs dance a pas de deux; at the end all the eggs hatch and tiny little chicks emerge, played by tiny little children of course;  one of them can't even get fully out of its shell. It's beyond adorable. And the hen and cock then lead them away. I can't decide if I found this so clever because of the choreography or because of the pitch perfect "Hen" mother of Jackie Nash who without condescending to the part exactly caught its humor, its "chicken" flavor, and its tenderness all while dancing with fantastic skill and grace. Also, and this will sound like a joke but I am quite serious, she had one of the ballet's most gorgeous costumes which was made of blue "feathers" (I assume not real feathers) forming a sort of round shaped skirt that stopped at the knees simultaneously suggesting a plump bird (though not making her look plump) and a kind of peasant dress. Like Nash's performance it managed to be humorously "chicken" like and beautiful at the same time.

I don't remember the exact order of what followed--and some details in what I do remember may be a little off (I also think I missed a lot that was happening with the set). No clowns or Mother Ginger (or, as in McFall’s version a Matriushka doll)  but instead, there was a semi-coda of all the previous soloists to the Mother Ginger Music -- the audience could not have been happier clapping rhythmically along -- culminating in Drosselmeyer entering in a nod to Mother Ginger's costume: he enters supernaturally “tall” or high up like Mother Ginger, attached to a giant rounded lattice frame that had the shape of a skirt circling all around him. Posing and hanging on the lattice frame were various dancer-acrobats in white representing (I infer) the planets and stars as if he were standing high up amidst the astrological cosmos depicted on his cloak (Edited to add: a photo reminded me that the astrological map with its stars and symbols is also projected in the background on, I think, the pages of the giant book that serve as scenic background for the entire Act. Again: I would not have minded a synopsis.) Atop this cosmic frame he sort of ‘conducted’ the dancers.  (Later in the ballet we got the full coda to Tchaikovsky's coda music: so it's misleading I guess to call this sequence a semi-coda--it was perhaps a reminder that Drosselmeyer is the choreographer/inventor of this world. The dream demi-god.)  At another point, Drosselmeyer makes a playful return wearing the mask of the Rat King frightening all around him and then removes it with a shrug. I haven't quite sorted out what was intended by this other than a reminder that we are, after all, in a story book, and that Drosselmeyer--or the choreographer--calls the shots. And perhaps that children like scary stories. But it certainly captures Possokhov's irony towards his materials and perhaps Hoffmann's as well.

The waltz of the Flowers had a corps of 12 with three couples weaving in and out--the couples identified as roses (the men) paired with dragonflies (the women) followed by the grand pas de deux for Marie and her prince (happily free of Drosselmeyer). At the end, after the proper coda of all the dancers, and farewell to her dream world and dream Nutcracker, Marie awakens  and finds her Nutcracker doll back as he was in his ugly doll form in the (still gigantic) cabinet and holds him in an embrace. There are some other details about this ending that I don't remember well enough to describe. The production as a whole is recognizably Nutcracker and yet, as I have tried to describe, it's full of odd quirks and twists and turns that really have less to do with the much publicized special effects and new technologies, than with re-imagining or re-envisioning how one might stage the score while still letting it and the story have their traditional and powerful effect.  If you come to see a traditional Nutcracker going back to Petipa's plans with Tchaikovsky and/or Ivanov's choreography and, well, whoever else was involved in the ballet's creation--you will be disappointed or, at least, disconcerted. If you come to see a Balanchinesque traditional version...the same. The choreography does often draw on familiar steps and (even more so) imagery from Nutcracker's past but it is un-apologetically Possokhov's and un-apologetically neo-classical. The two pas de deux for the prince and Marie include an acrobatic lift where he sort of cartwheels her in the air and the final pas de deux includes amidst its array of lyrical and airy lifts a drop to the floor in a splits that looks more girlishly gymnastic than balletically grand and comes as an ironic exclamation point exactly when you might expect a culminating grand lift. The "sugarplum fairy" solo has less delicate pointe work than any I can remember seeing, but does include oddly angled echappés...Arms for the corps in the snow scene include bent elbows forming sharp angles. The flowers slide to the floor playfully in sequence as if they were petals were being blown about etc. etc.

As in years past and as a huge plus Nutcracker at the Fox Theater has a live orchestra.  I was seeing the opening night cast albeit at their final performance. (Igarashi and Masero-Olarte danced the leads half of the entire run--which was just over two weeks--with the remaining performances split between two other casts; Gaifullin danced Drosselmeyer for more than half the run.) The various soloists were mostly, I thought, very good--a few even better—and as already mentioned I especially loved Jackie Nash's hen. And the leads were fabulous. Igarashi and Masero-Olarte's showed complete ease, fluidity, and confidence in the tricky pas de deux which were an absolute pleasure to watch -- the two of them made even the gymnastic moments mentioned above look like dancing and in the more lyrical and airy lifts were beautiful. Even more, I appreciated their warmth and charisma. Really can't say enough about it in fact. He is not the most refined of dancers perhaps, but caught just the right boyishly ardent tone in this ballet and Igarashi and he were radiant throughout. In fact, the still very young Igarashi seems to me genuinely marvelous. And I will note, at the risk of triviality, that she even had the opportunity to show off her wonderfully easy, centered fouettes, but everything she did was beautiful.  These performances were more than worth the (quite high) price of admission and I would happily not just have seen the ballet a second time but seen it a second time with the identical cast to savor their performances more fully.

Ballet productions have contexts: Atlanta Ballet in its present iteration is hardly going to be a flagship for Petipa/Ivanov reconstructions and, within certain limits, I think it makes sense for the company to have its own distinctive Nutcracker. This production brushes up against those limits but remains on the right side of them. More than that, the ballet looks great on the dancers. And I was surrounded by people of all ages, including lots and lots of children, who were enjoying themselves a great deal and that was great too.   Though, to finally settle my thoughts about this at times decidedly quirky Nutcracker, I would want to see it at least one more time...and will try to go next year. (And if anyone read this to the end...well, thank you.)

Edited by Drew
Sorting a few details//fixing typos/cut some stuff

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On 12/27/2018 at 5:27 AM, Drew said:

Ballet productions have contexts: Atlanta Ballet in its present iteration is hardly going to be a flagship for Petipa/Ivanov reconstructions and, within certain limits, I think it makes sense for the company to have its own distinctive Nutcracker. This production brushes up against those limits but remains on the right side of them. More than that, the ballet looks great on the dancers. And I was surrounded by people of all ages, including lots and lots of children, who were enjoying themselves a great deal and that was great too.   Though, to finally settle my thoughts though about this at times decidedly quirky Nutcracker, I would want to see it at least one more time...and will try to go next year. (And if anyone read this to the end...well, thank you.)

That was quite a write-up, Drew - thanks for making the effort! 

You mentioned that the ballet "looks great on the dancers", and I think that's probably the most important thing - tremendous stagings is always something to remember, but if the dancers simply look overwhelmed or ill-suited to the choreography, then we've got a problem. Possokhov seems to have come up with another production with many engrossing bits - it will probably take a number of viewings to really tell how well it all hangs together.

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