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Flash Review 1, 12-30: Nouvelle Noix
Tulsa Revises a Christmas Classic, a la mode Parisian

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2003 Alicia Chesser

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TULSA -- Most ballet fans, it's probably safe to say, like their "Nutcracker" like they like their Santa: familiar. Some of us, thank you, prefer it downright hoary. Newfangled 'Nut's are fine for the Mark Morrises of the world, but when December comes around, what we really want is the Ivanov & Petipa / Fritz & Clara / Sugarplum Fairy fruitcake. It's awfully disconcerting, then, to hear that a beloved old production has been given an "update" -- the very news announced by my alma mater, Tulsa Ballet, earlier this year. What would it be? A William Forsythe tribute with unitards and techno-remixed Tchaikovsky? An East Village version with the Prince in a trucker hat and the mice reworked as cockroaches? Or worse, an "Oklahoma" spin-off with square dancers and cowhands?

Marcello Angelini, Tulsa Ballet's director since 1995, is not so rash as that. The "Nutcracker" that the company's founders, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo stars Roman Jasinski and Moscelyne Larkin, created over 30 years ago was one of the most traditional versions performed in the United States, with choreography that closely followed Ivanov and sets and costumes that evoked the most primal German-Christmas-party / Kingdom-of-the-Sweets fantasy, all ruffles 'round the neck and pink spun sugar. When the company's board called for something to be done about the impossible-to-patch-anymore backdrops and dresses, Angelini's first thought was charmingly imaginative: to change the scenery altogether in tribute to his new home, setting the ballet in Tulsa in the 1920s, when the city was emerging as the world's oil capital and a center of Art Deco design. In the end, he landed it in 1920s Paris -- which saw its first production of "The Nutcracker" in the 1920s, and which had been the birthplace of the Art Deco movement -- thus preserving the tie to Tulsa while assuring a maximum of glamour.

Glamour was a priority, and not just because of the dinginess of the old production. In an interview with the Knoxville News Sentinel, Angelini noted that because of the widespread success of touring productions of big Broadway musicals, audiences nationwide "have become more sophisticated. Now they expect the same kind of visuals when they see a ballet, and that's what we are trying to do." Intrigued by Angelini's ideas, his friend the renowned Italian costumer Luisa Spinatelli (who most recently designed the costumes for the Royal Ballet's new "Sleeping Beauty") and set designer Paolino Libralato agreed to help Angelini bring his vision to the stage, even though Tulsa Ballet could not hope to match their usual fees.

With Angelini's new concept for the scenography came new ideas for the story. He wanted to emphasize an element of the original "Nutcracker" story by E. T. A. Hoffman that often gets lost amid the snowflakes and candy canes: romance. The new "Nutcracker" would be about a little girl's dreams of dancing and of love -- thus appealing not just to the tykes in the audience but to their parents as well. In the new version, the Prince, Charles, is the star of the Paris Opera Ballet, and Drosselmeier is his uncle (and the Paris Opera's director). The opening scene takes place in the ballet studio, with little Marie, also known as Clara in some productions, as the star pupil, infatuated with Charles, who is rehearsing with his partner; we then move to the Palais Garnier's foyer for an elegant Christmas party, during which Drosselmeier announces plans for the company to premiere "The Nutcracker." He describes the story of the Nutcracker Prince as Charles, his partner, and a dancer playing the Mouse King demonstrate. Drosselmeier, seeing how Marie is entranced by the new ballet, gives her his model Nutcracker doll, and as the adults leave and her parents stop to discuss her progress with the ballet master, she is left behind, asleep.

The second act's plot is less heavily revised. Marie awakens to find herself embroiled in a battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King; she helps defeat the mouse army, then is transformed into a beautiful young woman before seeing the Nutcracker transformed, as well, into a Prince. The snow scene, a love duet between Marie and Charles in the Garden of Versailles, concludes with the arrival of a Rolls Royce, which whisks them off to Charles's castle where, greeted by paparazzi, the two lovers enjoy a celebration of their engagement. Gifts arrive in the form of dances performed by famous dancers from all over the world; the "Waltz of the Flowers" features bridesmaids and their courtiers; the pas de deux is a declaration of the lovers' affection. As Marie wakes up from her dream at the ballet's end, she sees the real Charles crossing the room to pick up his coat, which he had forgotten, and they exchange a long glance as if, perhaps, they had once been in love.

This "Nutcracker" is Angelini's first foray into choreographing an evening-length ballet. What is sometimes the case with first novels turns out to be the case (in this case, at least) also with first ballets: the idea, powerful though it may be, fails to materialize in full on the page (or the stage). My account of the plot in the previous two paragraphs was paraphrased from the page-long summary in the program and from an even longer one in a "Nutcracker" preview featured in a local magazine. There is no way I could have reconstructed it in such detail from what happened on the stage. Though the sets and costumes beautifully evoke the different settings of the ballet's scenes -- the ballet studio, the Garnier foyer, Versailles, a grand ballroom -- the transitions within scenes and from one scene to another are far from clear.

The fault lies in largest part with the over-involved story. For example, Act One, Scene One offers not only the suggestion of Marie's infatuation with Charles, but a subplot involving the other students' jealousy of the gifted Marie, and a sub-subplot involving the ballet mistress (infatuated with Drosselmeier) and the pianist (infatuated with the ballet mistress). The scene concludes with an overlong slapstick dance between the pianist and ballet mistress, after which the stage goes black and we are abruptly in the midst of the Scene Two party. Simply from looking at the stage action, one would be hard pressed to figure out how the girls from the ballet class have ended up in a glittering hall with a dozen men and women (company dancers? the girls' parents? random flappers?) in evening dress -- much less to figure out that the purpose of the party is the announcement of the Paris Opera Ballet premiere of "The Nutcracker," or that Drosselmeier gives Marie the Nutcracker doll because he sees that she is dreaming of one day performing in the ballet. Such facts are suggested, but so quickly that they barely register. The libretto is more elaborate than the choreography can handle; many times, it neither shows nor tells. Put simply, the ballet could use an edit. On these and several other occasions, narrative progress is imposed rather than developed, and the audience is left in the lurch.

The lurch isn't as bothersome as it might be, however, because of the magnificence of the costumes and sets and the winsomeness of the Tulsa Ballet dancers. The ballet is a swift 90 minutes, so one has little time to dwell on incongruities. I found myself swept along past the moments of "wait, what's happening?" by the sheer beauty of the stage design; anecdotal evidence suggests that many other audience members did, too. Libralato's sets are stunning backdrops, painted in warm blues and golds with a dreamlike haze about them. The Palais Garnier foyer is "Vienna Waltzes"-esque with its mirrors-upon-mirrors and burning chandelier. The drop for the castle's exterior is done in exaggerated vertical perspective; it looks two hundred stories tall. Spinatelli's costumes are no less spectacular: luscious '20s gowns in dark velvet and lace and glinting rhinestones, fur muffs and cloche hats for the women, shiny pastel drop-waist dresses for the little girls. The mice in the Mouse King's army are dangerously dapper in yellow vests and black tights; four women in black merry widows comprise the King's entourage, while he himself is sleek in slim black velvet. The "flowers" in the second act waltz arrive like flappers in spangly pink and silver, their skirts like strips of confetti. It's a delicious spectacle, a truffle for the eye.

The dancers, too, are pure pleasure, their style buoyant and unforced. They come from all over the U.S. -- the Boston, Louisville, San Francisco, and Pacific Northwest ballet companies -- and all over the world -- China, Prague, Peru, and Madrid. For all that diversity, they are remarkably unified in style and skill. The company's ballerina, Daniela Buson, has an alluring reserve about her dancing. The men, notably Ma Cong (the Mouse King and an air-splitting "Russian") and Alfonso Martin (Charles), are particularly good, bold and smooth at once. The company had a thriving school once upon a time, from which it drew many of its dancers; only one of those alumni is left, and that school has faded. Happily, the company has started a new one, the Tulsa Ballet Center for Dance Education, and one hopes that many of the children who performed in this "Nutcracker" will be seen in Tulsa for years to come. They have excellent models in their elders.

But fine scenic design and fine dancers can do only so much work in a production. There is quite a lot of movement in Angelini's "Nutcracker," but it often seems thrown together. Particularly in the several pas de deux, the only dimension is sweep. That's understandable in the Snow scene -- snow comes in flurries, after all, and the choreography there has a pleasant ice-dancing quality -- but in Act Two such mono-dimensionality is tiring.

It's bad enough that the famous Sugarplum Fairy solo (the one done to the celesta) is a) almost completely revised into a series of gentle swirls and b) moved up to the beginning of Act Two, just after Charles and Marie arrive at the castle. (This seems meant to emphasize the solo as Marie's "introduction" to the guests, and perhaps a meditation on how happy she is to be there.) Not only does this leave an endless stretch of waltzes and duets and farewells after the national dances, it also takes a central column out of the magnificent architecture that was the Grand Pas de Deux. The traditional pas is a sonnet, its several stanzas building and building on each other, its conclusion a ravishing release. Violette Verdy has described it -- with its tentative approaches, its delicate steps gradually sparking into huge leaps to the shoulder -- as an allegory of a young woman's growth into womanhood. Angelini's pas is merely a love duet, after the fashion of Stanton Welch (whose works have begun to appear in the Tulsa Ballet repertory), which tells us simply that Charles and Marie feel for each other in a way that makes them hang around each other's necks. We are already supposed to know that Marie has become a woman (after all, we saw her transform before our eyes in front of a full-length mirror). Why belabor the point? I really believe that what is lost in the loss of that old pas de deux is something more than just old choreography. It's a certain sort of dance imagination.

When it is up to the task, Angelini's choreography works wonderfully. An Act One dance for the young girls -- a basic ballet-class combination -- is beautifully matched to their age. Charles's entrance at the party is a riot of classical conventions; clearly, you think, this is the star, the prince, the hero! The adults' dance in the same scene crackles with angular poses and on-the-bias patterns that echo the Deco decor. In some places, Angelini has preserved elements of the original choreography; in others, he brings in steps he introduced earlier, which makes for a pleasantly dreamlike sense of deja vu. The "Arabian" dance in Act Two is perhaps the finest achievement, with the sinuous Tara Hench passed from hand to hand among three men, touching the ground only to caress it with her toes.

With his eye for design, Angelini does very well at ensembles; his solos and duets leave less of an impression. This "Nutcracker" is very much a "design" production; its values, as he hoped, are those of Broadway. Ballet values -- the sort that make a pas de deux tell a complex story, for example -- are something different. But Angelini's "Nutcracker" doesn't set out to be Ivanov Revisited. It succeeds in many ways at what it attempts, which is actually quite a lot. The costumes and sets are masterpieces; the libretto, though it needs some trimming and clarification, is ingenious. Most of all, the sense of Marie's "dream" as one of all-conquering love is very strong throughout the ballet, especially when, in the final moment, Charles removes his hat as he gazes at the little girl. I miss much of the old choreography, but the new elements Angelini has introduced are both intriguing and endearing.

It should be mentioned that Tulsa, hard-hit by the recession, lost its beloved symphony orchestra a little more than a year ago. What has emerged to take the place of the much-missed Philharmonic is something called the Signature Symphony, which is doing yeoman's work all over town to provide live music for many sorts of productions. Tulsa Ballet showed tremendous confidence and faith to stage an entirely new production of "The Nutcracker" (with the Signature Symphony in the pit, of course!) in such a difficult economy. But boldness like this can raise the spirits of entire communities -- which, judging from the reaction of the man on the street, is precisely what this new "Nutcracker" has done.

Alicia Chesser (formerly Mosier) has written for the Dance Insider since 2000.

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