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The SFB Nutcracker: fantasy-ballet

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This review/preview of SFB's Nutcracker ran in the Bay Area Reporter a few years ago, with a picture of Balanchine as Drosselmeyer.

In the days before movies, the opera house was the great home of theatrical special effects, stage illusions, fantasies come to life. Dragons emerged from the mists in Wagner; ghosts of dead lovers flitted across the stage in Giselle. The Nutcracker, which had its premiere in St. Petersburg in 1892 at the Tsar's Imperial Theater, is perhaps our strongest link to the kind of mind-blowing theatrical fantasies our great-grandparents saw as young people, and were haunted by for years to come. Even today, I can get shivers at San Francisco Ballet's production of The Nutcracker, when Clara starts to dream and the stage picture begins to swell, the Christmas tree starts to grow and grow and becomes gigantic, and the toys under it emerge life-sized. I've seen it a number of times, but the emotions contained in it mean so much to me, I can never see it without wanting to believe it. It makes me homesick: our family Christmas parties in New Orleans were a lot like this, with mysterious customs, armies of cousins and great-aunts you scarcely knew -- "the sofa people," we called them -- and amazing food, exquisite little cakes. As a gay man with no children, The Nutcracker could make me feel left out -- except that I can identify with the heroine's childless Uncle Drosselmeyer, who gives her the nutcracker and turns her on to the world of the imagination. It's my job in the family to help my brothers' kids with things their parents don't know about.

THe Nutcracker is not for children; like Schumann's Kinderszenen, it's about childhood. We see events through a child's eyes: the big family Christmas party, the old folks with their fussy dances, Uncle Drosselmeyer with his amazing toys that move as if they were alive, and the nutcracker doll he gives to Clara, and her stupid brother who breaks it out of envy and spite -- but Drosselmeyer fixes it and she tucks it into a little bed under the tree. And then she dreams she comes downstairs after everybody's gone home to nurse the wounded doll: how Drosselkmeyer is still there, and he makes everything grow, and how a lot of mice swarm around her, and the Nutcracker tries to defend her from the mice but is overwhelmed, and how she overcomes her fears and actually brains the mouse king herself -- whereupon Drosselmeyer and the nutcracker lead her off through the snows to Konfituerenberg, the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where everything is perfect, like Uncle Drosselmeyer's toys that move like clockwork.

Like "A Christmas Carol" -- the other great embodiment of the Christmas spirit -- The Nutcracker is about the care that a rich, childless, scary older man gives to a child at a crossroads in life. Tiny Tim is dying -- Scrooge gives the money that saves his life. Uncle Drosselmeyer is rich in a different way -- he is rich in lore, he knows how things tick. The difference is that A Christmas Carol is Scrooge's story -- it is his inner transformation that we experience -- while in The Nutcracker it is Clara's hopes and fears, her inner journey that we follow.

The great productions all insist on telling the story; even George Balanchine, who hated unnecessary pantomime, staged a detailed party scene -- a wonderful scene, one of his greatest creations -- and he played Drosselmeyer himself. It's locked into Tchaikovsky's music -- the social dance, the magic swelling Christmas tree, the battle of the tin soldiers and the mice, and the transition to a realm of idealised beauty. The pure dancing is the natural flowering of the growth we've seen take place. Now the fantasy can take its perfect shape in dancing like crystals: the dazzling snow scene, the Sugar Plum Fairy's jewelled movements, and divertissements that explore a variety of romantic moods -- sensuality, gusto, zest, hilarity, tenderness, majesty. It is rich, fantastic, noble, and at times almost unbearably grand.

Balanchine was one of many Russian-emigre dancers who began transplantingd ballet to the United States in the 30's; it has gone native, like the eucalyptus tree, and now little Nutcrackers crop up wherever there's a ballet school with at least six students on pointe. Recital versions now function for small communities like the staged nativity scenes we used to dress up for when I was a boy -- they give the town a chance to see the kids dressed up in fancy costumes, and provide a holiday ritual that non-Christians don't find alienating.

But for real imaginative power, it's the opera-house productions, with their curtains of mist and snow and the consciousness-expanding power of great classical dancing, that give you a sense that something momentous is going on, that Clara will never be the same, and that you've looked into the seeds of time.

San Francisco's Nutcracker is almost great. Its faults are that the children's choreography is too sentimental, the old folks are made to look peculiarly ugly, and the Sugar Plum Fairy's solo does not make sense -- otherwise, it's fantastic. The dance of the snowflakes is a flurry of swirling brilliance, the Russian dance has the reckless wildness you find in Russian novels. The dancers are among the finest in the whole country.

BAlletomanes, take note: The Kirov Ballet are bringing their Nutcracker to San Jose December 20-24. They bring twenty dancers from St. Petersburg (where The Nutcracker has been continuously performed since 1892), and a full complement of support from their satellite school in Washington D.C. This full-scale production will not be Ivanov's original -- it was drastically revised in 1934 by Vasily Vainonen It will be fascinating to see what shape this essentially middle-class ballet came to take in the Soviet years, and to see the new young exemplars of the grand KIrov style.

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the old folks are made to look peculiarly ugly

yes, yes! i hate the sets for act 2 as well. actually there are many more things i dislike the about the sfb nutcracker :wub: it's just too different than what i'm used to!

thanks for the post, paul. by the way i know you through bbt.

Edited by SFB2b
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