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Letter from New York, 1-5: Nuts to the Emperor
From the Extraordinary to the Ordinary at Lincoln Center

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2006 Sandra Aberkalns

NEW YORK -- Lincoln Center has seen it all this past year: architectural and personnel changes, torches passed on, yet once again, to another generation, and visions of things to come that are much more substantial than sugar plums dancing in one man's head. August was an especially bustling month. Construction workers demolished the concrete walkway that once connected the Juilliard School to Lincoln Center, as part of the organization's plan to redesign the 6.5 acres of public space within the complex. (A new lightweight steel and glass footbridge will be built further west, next to the Vivian Beaumont and Mitzie E. Newhouse Theatres.) Michelle Potter, an internationally recognized dance scholar and curator, joined the New York Public Library as curator of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, replacing curator Madeline Nichols, who retired in November 2005. And Peter Gelb assumed all of the responsibilities of general manager at the Metropolitan Opera, after a one-year transition period in which he worked alongside outgoing general manager Joseph Volpe. Most recently, during New York's unseasonably warm December, "The Nutcracker" and the Tan Dun opera "The First Emperor" were the hot topics.

I have to admit that until being assigned to review the December 12 New York City Ballet performance at the New York State Theater, I had never seen George Balanchine's version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." As I approached Lincoln Center, I was thinking about why I had never chosen to see this particular version of my own volition. One reason that came to mind is that with the not-so-subtle commercialization of "The Nutcracker" -- not just at NYCB but everywhere -- it's hard for me to move past visions of cash cows blockading the Sugar Plum Fairy's path. However, this particular production has been a tradition since 1954 so I scurried, like a mouse, towards the theater hoping for the best and expecting....

Crossing the theater's threshold, you are greeted by several mega-sized Nutcracker cutouts hung from the balustrade with care. Upstairs, dress circle level, you can have your photograph taken with a Snowflake or accommodate your child's sweet tooth at a seasonal concession. Seeing all this I felt I was on a slippery downhill slope into Scrooge mode when Balanchine himself did a Jacob Marley on me. Suddenly, out of the blue, his response to "What ballets should children be taken to see?" came to me. He said, in part, "We must understand that children are flexible; they have more imagination, more feeling for fantasy, than grownups. Grownups analyze, they compare, or they complain. Children are open, freer, not so prejudiced." I looked again into a little girl's face and I saw the fairy dust in her eyes. Looking all around me, I saw that boys and girls alike were genuinely excited about their entire experience at the theater -- not simply with the results after the curtain went up. Once upon a time, we were those little boys and girls, and even though dance is still our passion, we sometimes forget how it also started for us. I told my cynicism to wait for me outside on the plaza and as a result, I had one of the most enjoyable evenings I've had at the theater in quite a while.

Live performances are exciting because you can never predict what will happen -- not only from performance to performance but also literally from one moment to the next within any performance. December 12 was one of those magical evenings where everything went right and everyone's dancing was truly sublime. However, in my opinion, one performance was truly exceptional. Rachel Rutherford, replacing Ellen Bar as Dewdrop, was incandescent.

As Paul Ben-Itzak did in his Flash of an earlier performance of this work by this company, I would like to acknowledge the New York City Ballet Orchestra's and, in the performance I saw, violin soloist Kurt Nikkanen's contribution to an enchanting evening. The music, directed by guest conductor David LaMarche, was lush throughout with the tempi remaining refreshingly crisp.

The production teams, both technical and costume, also deserve applause. The special effects may seem simple by today's standards (although, when is lifting a one-ton tree ever simple?), but that didn't stop the adults from oohing and aahing alongside their kids. Karinska's costume designs are still visually stunning to look at, which is due to the wardrobe department's diligence in maintaining and executing them.

Balanchine, remembering his experiences as a young dancer in Russia's Maryinsky Theater, upheld the same traditions in his company by using numerous children from the school. In doing so, he not only acknowledged his own heritage, but also demonstrated his faith in the training these students received at his School of American Ballet. At the start of a rehearsal period it's easy for these children to be excited. However, as the weeks go by, first in learning the choreography and then rehearsing the movement repeatedly, a lot of that initial enthusiasm can easily wane. It is then up to the teachers to reassure the children that they can have a good time while remembering the choreography and in this the children in this show were quite successful. It's also apparent that Balanchine respected the ability and facility of talented young dancers. During one of the first act line dances, there is a moment when the adults stop and the children continue. The footwork is pure Balanchine -- musical, fast, and complex.

Troy Schumacher, as the Soldier, was wooden (in a good way). One moment he was moving with military precision, completing four separate tours en l'air, which called on him to finish facing a different direction at the end of each tour, not easy to do; then he was executing, at the end of the solo, an extremely smooth triple pirouette, without ever losing the illusion of being wooden.

Even as the harp segued into the clean, crisp notes that announce the arrival of the [Waltz of the] Snowflakes, a white powder began to gently fall and it felt as though the temperature inside the theater had dropped as well. When the dancers entered, enough snow had accumulated that as they ran diagonally across the stage it flew up into the air behind them. As the ladies swept across the stage, in constantly shifting patterns, it was as though Balanchine had aimed a giant kaleidoscope in their direction and was manipulating their movement with every revolution of the instrument. As the music built towards its climax, the snow started to come down harder and swirled dramatically overhead, as did the dancers below. To chainé straight downstage with the snow whipping into your eyes can't be easy, but they didn't flinch. It was also a relief to see that no one lost her footing in those "icy" conditions.

In the December 6 issue of the London-based Guardian newspaper, Judith Mackrell asked why any dancer would yearn to be Sugar Plum as it is such a marginal role in her view. She posed the question to choreographer Christopher Hampson, who opined, "Sugar Plum is just bizarre. Every other ballerina role is essential to the action, but she comes out of nowhere to dance her big number, and that's it. She's like the star turn at the end of the Royal Variety show."

It is not clear to whose version of "The Nutcracker" Hampson is referring but it was not Balanchine's. Indeed, in this version Jenifer Ringer was not only lovely as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but was the guiding star as well. As any royalty would be in the Land of the Sweets she was elegant, gracious yet slightly aloof, and warm-hearted without being mushy. Her footwork was sharp and precise while her upper body remained soft with beautifully articulated arms. In her first entrance, when she greeted the angels, she really looked each child in the eye with a reassuring smile -- that is what Sugar Plums do. The Sugar Plum's role was as integrated into the fabric of the story as the other characters were. She entered early not only to say hello to the angels, who glided so smoothly along the breadth and width of the stage it was uncanny, but also to oversee the entire procession, which passed by in her honor and that of her guests Marie and the Nutcracker Prince. Everyone's stage time in this act is intense -- it is a divertissement, not a further development of the plot. If Mackrell considers the Sugar Plum's role as marginal, then how does she view her consort? Philip Neal, in the role of Her Cavalier, did what he was expected to do -- he was a warm and gracious partner to Ringer. His partnering skills were especially apparent when, near the end of the pas de deux, while Ringer was in an arabesque, on pointe, he gently pulled her across the back of the stage without making her lose her balance. Both dancers executed the movement brilliantly.

From Hot Chocolate to Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles all of the second-act divertissements were delightful to watch. The Candy Canes especially proved their mettle by being particularly exuberant. They were so effervescent that even the amazing Tom Gold, with his wondrous hoop, couldn't steal the show away from them. As they took their bows, the audience roared its approval.

In the Waltz of the Flowers, Rachel Rutherford's performance, as I mentioned above, was as crystalline as the 65 crystals sewn onto her Dewdrop costume. With her very first smile, she engaged the audience so seductively it was as though she were inviting us to decide what scent she should exude that evening. What flower did we think she should be? Choose and she would be whatever we wanted. To me she was as peppery as a paper white, but to the person sitting next me she could have been a rose, jasmine, or even a magnolia blossom. While Balanchine's choreography is renowned for its musicality, Rutherford also played with the music, which only enhanced her interpretation. In her third appearance (she flits in and out during the entire waltz), her arabesques moving back on the diagonal and into an attitude pirouette were flawless. Then, to top it off, in the Finale, she upped even herself with these incredible pirouettes en dedans into arabesque.

Suddenly, it was time for Marie and her Prince to go home. The Sugar Plum Fairy gave Marie a kiss on her cheek, allowed the young prince to kiss her hand, and then simply sent them on their way. It was refreshing to have the ballet end without a lot of fuss. After all, it was only a dream.

If you haven't already, next year, if you have children, or even if you don't, find the time in your hectic holiday schedule to go see this production. It will tickle your senses in every way.

Across the plaza, at the Metropolitan Opera, the opera "The First Emperor" had its premiere on December 21; I caught it December 26. (The run is sold-out, as there has been considerable hype for the production).

The Met commissioned "The First Emperor" in 1996 as a co-production with the Los Angeles Opera. The production team's pedigree is stellar to say the least. Tan Dun composed; Zhang Yimou directed; Fan Yue designed the sets; Emi Wada the costumes; Duane Schuler the lighting; and Dou Dou Huang choreographed. If the names are not instantaneously recognizable, you may be familiar with the movies that some of the people from this team are associated with, including "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "House of Flying Daggers," and "Hero." If you watched the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, you probably saw Huang as the choreographer of and featured dancer in "Chinese Gong Fu."

The story revolves around Qin Shi Huang, who was king of the Chinese State of Qin before he warred upon, defeated, then consolidated previously independent principalities into a unified China by 221 BCE, and then ruled under the title "The First Emperor." During his reign he was, as many emperors are, a tyrant and his rule was autocratic. He arrested then buried alive Confucian scholars; burned books, except those that were about farming, medicine, or augury; initiated major reforms such as standardizing weights and measures and the script used for writing; codified the law; and put everyone to work on large construction projects, including the precursor to the current Great Wall of China. Upon his death, at age 49, he was buried alongside his famous Terracotta Army, which was discovered relatively recently, in 1974.

In the first act, even though China has been unified chaos abounds. Emperor Qin is also having a difficult time. His daughter, Princess Yueyang, is paralyzed from a riding accident, and he is obsessed with the idea of a new anthem that will glorify his illustrious empire. He sends General Wang to retrieve his childhood friend, composer Gao Jianli, promising the general a bonus if the job is done quickly: his daughter's hand in marriage. Wang returns with the musician, but Jianli will not compose anything for the emperor that ransacked his village and killed his mother. As Jianli lies wasting away, on a hunger strike, Yeuyang strikes a deal with her father: If she can persuade him to eat and compose the anthem, she will own him. Her father agrees. For several days, she tries, unsuccessfully, to get him to eat then in one final, desperate attempt, she feeds him from her own mouth. They make passionate love and afterwards she is, amazingly, able to walk again. In the second act, the daughter refuses to marry the general, which initiates an unfortunate chain of events. Even though the anthem is eventually completed, the price is costly: Yeuyang, Wang, and Jianli are all dead, and the Emperor is stunned when he discovers that the "new" anthem, left behind by Jianli, is the same slaves' song heard at the beginning of the story.

After seeing, in rehearsal and performance, Carolyn Choa's visually stunning choreography for "Madama Butterfly;" seeing Christopher Wheeldon's work on "La Gioconda," in rehearsal, and then reading the rave reviews he received, I was prepared for an evening of dance in an opera that was at least equal to and possibly surpassed what I had already seen in these two productions.

Peking-style opera performer Wu Hsing-Kuo was featured in the role of Yin-Yang Master, official geomancer. In his opening walk, singing in Chinese, with the traditional nasal tones and vocal slides, his physicality was extremely smooth and balanced. The finer nuances of Chinese dance were probably lost on me due to my ignorance but I did wonder if the impression of "balanced" movement came to me because he was walking in profile -- neither yin nor yang? Whenever he addressed the audience in the yang (masculine), it was with a fiery, red face. The masculine movement seemed harsh, discordant, often accompanied by angular, emphatic gestures. Then a quick half turn and the yin (feminine), in a white mask, was looking at you. Undulating her torso while drawing curlicues in the air with her hand, she was sensuous and tantalizing. From a choreographic perspective, Wu Hsing-Kuo's performance was the only intriguing dance element of the entire evening.

While Dou Dou Huang is obviously an incredibly gifted performer, in this opera his performance was gratuitous. Unfortunately, his two solos did not visually enhance the story unfolding at that moment or move the plot forward, nor could they be considered an operatic divertissement. His first solo, on top of a drum, was extremely brief, and with so many other things happening at the same time, I'm not even sure what, if anything, he was meant to represent. The movement in his second act solo was beautifully executed but it was confined to such a narrow lateral space that the vocabulary was extremely limited. This solo was very militaristic, consisting of several deep knee lunges with one arm shooting forward as though the character was impaling someone with a spear. However, it happened so late in the second act that demonstrating the Emperor's military strength had become a mute point.

In the opening section, although the image of Emperor Qin's future Terracotta Army was visually interesting, the chorus's repetitive side arm gesture was unimaginative and annoying -- it looked as though they were swatting gnats away. Simple, repetitive gestures in shifting rhythmic patterns can be treacherous to do and just like in one of Charles Moulton's ball dances, make one false move and 3,800 people know it. At the performance I attended, there were several false moves and I wondered if the singers would ever give a clean performance of that section.

The staging for the principal singers was, for the most part, stilted and wooden. Whether they were spread out across the stage or close enough to look each other in the eyes, I rarely sensed any warmth or connection between their characters, so it was hard for me to care what happened to them. Most of the time their gestures were "operatic" -- so grossly over-exaggerated it verged on camp -- as though you were watching a silent film. Even in a house the size of the Met gestures don't have to be as big as "the house" to be effective.

Watching the Zheng musician, Qi Yao, as she played the overture to Act II was delightful. She was so expressive physically. Her body danced above her instrument, and heavenly music was the result.

In this opera, the dancers did not dance; they transported Princess Yeuyang on and off the stage, helped Jianli dress, and broke their backs building the Great Wall. However, in Act I, scene 3, there was a moment that was as close to dancing as they would get in this production. After Yeuyang fed Jianli from her own mouth and they started to make passionate love, three ladies entered and positioned themselves on the rock formations scattered around the bed the two leads were on. Their movement was simple -- probably improvised as they were just shifting their weight back and forth waving what seemed to be lanterns. On the bed the principal singers continued to make romantic, slo-motion movie-style love when the lights revealed several dancers, behind the stairs, whose movement was apparently amplifying the lovemaking happening downstage of them -- it was as though we were looking through window blinds into an adjacent room. I'm not a prude, but when I couldn't really see what the dancers were doing I took a closer look, through my opera glasses, and what I saw then was vulgar and tasteless. The dancers were lying on their backs with their crotches aimed directly towards the audience, repeatedly opening their legs into side splits, then crossing them. Between the lighting effect and the movement being done it was as though the sex shops that once thrived on 42nd Street were back in business. Granted, I could be mistaken about all this, it was dark, the dancers were obscured, and I would love to be corrected on this if I am wrong. If I'm not, I know exactly why this bothered me. It is the simple fact that the director wasn't asking the lead singers to do something so vulgar, but it was okay for the dancers do be doing it.

In his December 23 music review in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini writes, "Mr. Tan's score is an enormous disappointment, all the more so because whole stretches of it, and many arresting musical strokes, confirm his gifts." Unfortunately, Mr. Huang's choreography is an enormous disappointment as well.


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