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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.

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