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Flash Flashback, 11-24: Extraordinary Things
Believe it or Not at City Ballet
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2006 The Dance Insider
(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Archive. This article was first posted on November 27, 2000. George Balanchine's version of the "The Nutcracker," to the Tchaikovsky music, returns to the New York State Theater tonight, with Wendy Whelan and Nikolaj Hubbe heading the New York City Ballet production, and Robert La Fosse reprising the role of Drosselmeyer.)
Arguably, no ballet is
more important to Ballet than Tchaikovsky/Petipa's "The Nutcracker."
It gives children their first exposure to the art, whether they're
dancing in it or viewing it. It's our first -- and many times last
-- chance to hook them as either future audience or dancers. And
it's important to hooking adults as well. A slogan on the poster
for San Francisco Ballet's production, perhaps taken from the E.T.A.
Hoffman tale, got it right: "Extraordinary things await those with
eyes to see." What ballet in general has to offer to the public
is the reminder of the possibility of extraordinary things for those
who have eyes to see, and "The Nutcracker" is the first eye-opener.
Several extraordinary things were on view Friday at the New York
State Theater in the opening of New York City Ballet's 2000 season
of Balanchine's "The Nutcracker," some exhilarating, some exasperating.
Extraordinary thing number
one: Last year, opening the "Nutcracker" season to taped music due
to an orchestra strike, the dancers of NYCB, led by the eternally
musical Wendy Whelan as the Sugarplum Fairy, danced their hearts
out. Last night, it was the orchestra, conducted by Hugo Fiorato
and with a star turn by violin soloist Nicolas Danielson, that played
its heart out, and the dancers who, with a few exceptions, came
up short in the spirit department.
Extraordinary thing number
two: With a nod to, respectively, Herr Drosselmeier and the Dewdrop
Fairy, in this ballet, it's essentially the child Marie who is the
focal point in the first act, and the Sugarplum Fairy who guides
us through the Land of the Sweets in the second. To be open to believing
this fairy tale, we need Marie to be open to it. And to be receptive
to the fantasy in the second act, we need Sugarplum to be welcoming
us as well as the Angels, the other performers, and of course Marie
and the Nutcracker Prince. In other words, the heat is coming from
these two characters. On Friday, it was the youngster, Faith Score
as Marie, who was on fire, and the Sugar Plum Fairy, Miranda Weese,
who projected cold as ice.
Historically, the young
dancers playing Marie (Clara in some versions) often respond to
the pressure by stiffening up, in the process losing some of the
very lithesomeness that the role requires. They push so hard to
get it right, that they lose the wildness of childhood. Score, however,
seemed spontaneous from the start - and truly to be responding to
her fellow players. Whether lashing out at her pest of a brother
or recoiling in fear as the wild-haired Drosselmeier straddled the
grandfather clock, she reacted in the moment, and with an unbridled,
natural energy. She didn't just play a kid; she was a kid.
As for Robert La Fosse's
Drosselmeier, by now it's become a study in the lost art of ballet
pantomime. La Fosse executes his movements with a flourish that
isn't just rote stylization but has spirited panache. This time
around, I loved the way he enacted much of his varied mime in profile,
almost as if he were a story-book character come to life. La Fosse
doesn't throw anything away; on the contrary, he elevates the mime
here. In an age where ballet pantomime has become a vanishing craft
- only a few gestures remaining, and these often given in a bored
blur - La Fosse is a treasure, an actor/dancer who treats mime with
the same seriousness as pure dance moves.
If La Fosse is a treasure,
Monique Meunier is a jewel. As my colleague Alicia Mosier noted
in her review of NYCB's gala (see Flash Review
1, 11-22: Looking at Love), Meunier sets the standard of spirited
animation to which most of the rest of the company still needs to
rise. She is that ballerina who is regal without being imperious,
but rather, is benevolent, genuinely generous. This quality is there
when she glides triumphantly downstage and opens her arms in a giving
gesture extended to the audience. It's there in a bearing and smile
which she doesn't horde, but shares with us. It's there in the way
that, rising, she seems to be rising gloriously into the note, riding
on the musical wave, and luxuriating in it. Technically, it's there
in the way she waits until the last moment before oh-so-gracefully
"falling" off pointe.
More imperious and less
generous, at least Friday night, was Miranda Weese's Sugarplum.
For audience, fellow sweets, and Marie and the Nutcracker Prince,
the Sugarplum Fairy sets the note of wonderment and suspension of
disbelief in the second act. But there was absolutely no connection,
first of all, between Weese and the Angels, the children whose seemingly
miraculous gliding starts the act. Her smile played as plastic.
When she offered her hand to Ryan Cardea's Nutcracker Prince to
kiss as he and Marie bid her farewell, Weese's body retracted the
other direction, as if she were afraid of catching cooties. And
she and the especially fleet Damian Woetzel, as her cavalier, did
not seem to be dancing together.
And speaking of cold,
the Snowflakes, with one or two exceptions (Carrie Lee Riggins being
one), were strangely wooden - strangely because, how could a dancer
fail to be moved by the stirring music of this section? Yet some
here seemed even unhappy, as if this were just another day at the
office, and a drudge of an office at that. Their legs, in some cases,
were awkwardly stiff. Having just returned from seeing Paris Opera
Ballet in Balanchine's "Apollo," it occurs to me that, often as
not, the dancers of New York City Ballet, particularly in the corps,
seem to be so pre-occupied with getting his geometry right that
they forget - or perhaps have not been taught - that the very raison
d'etre of that geometry is how it expresses the music. And yet if
they fail to be moved by this glorious music, they're not truly
welcoming that musicality into their bones. And the choreography
can become alienating.
(Speaking of stiff, Maria
Kowroski, who noticeably stiffened up last season, delivered mixed
results as Coffee. Notwithstanding that her body has the curves
ideally suited to this dance to faux middle eastern music, Kowroski's
phrasing was at first awkwardly over-angular. But she smoothed out
at the finish, with a droll, subtle lift of her leg behind as her
torso settled on the stage, her chin in her hands before a final
patient thumbing of the cymbals, her eyes connecting with us with
a frank sensuality.)
The music was, however,
given a glorious performance by the orchestra, with principal conductor
Fiorato delivering his usual fast-paced reading. Violin soloist
Danielson threatened to steal the show with his sensitive voicing
of the interlude which opens the second act, almost alone infusing
this section -- during which Frau Stalbaum seeks Marie and then
covers her sleeping daughter with her shawl -- with a fearful anticipation
of what's to come. Perhaps he could infuse the NYCB corps, not to
mention Weese, with some of that warmth.