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Letter from New York, 2-2: Battle of the Nuts
New colors from ABT & Ratmansky, but City Ballet's Mr. B still sets standard

Catherine Hurlin and Tyler Maloney in American Ballet Theatre's production of Alexei Ratmansky's new version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." Photo by and copyright Erin Baiano and courtesy ABT..

By Harris Green
Copyright 2011 Harris Green

NEW YORK -- American Ballet Theatre's $5 million production of Alexei Ratmansky's "The Nutcracker," which premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on December 23, promises to become that rarest of Christmas perennials, a "Nutcracker" that challenges New York City Ballet's version on its own spectacular terms. George Balanchine's staging has dominated the local market since it burst upon the scene in 1954. (It went nationwide on CBS television in 1957 and '58.) Willem Christensen's 1944 "Nutcracker" for San Francisco Ballet had been the first to be staged by a U.S. company. ABT has produced short-lived efforts by Mikhail Baryshnikov (1976) and Kevin McKenzie (1993), but neither went head to head with Balanchine's during the holidays. Only dance schools or troupes with a captive audience of relatives have regularly offered an alternative "Nutcracker" in New York around Christmas; now ABT, which has signed a five-year lease on BAM for December, has fielded a full-fledged contender.

Before the curtain rose, the premiere got off to a merry start that didn't earn anything like the hilarity it deserved. Artistic director McKenzie, after reminding the audience it was attending a historic event, introduced multibillionaire David Koch, who had got this show on the road with a $2.5 million challenge grant. Koch, an increasingly familiar figure at cultural events, lumbered out from the wings, clutching what looked like a mercifully short speech. He should have plunged directly into it but, caught up in the occasion, he ad-libbed a greeting in which he confused ABT with NYCB [laughter, yes, but not nearly enough].

A casual glance at the casting in the program revealed that Ratmansky had made this "Nutcracker" very much his own. Yes, there was a Clara, danced by Catherine Hurlin, a student of ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. But The Nutcracker Boy (JKO classmate Tyler Maloney)? Gillian Murphy doubling as Clara/The Princess? David Hallberg as Nutcracker/The Prince? I confess I am woefully unfamiliar with the various versions Ratmansky may have seen in Russia and I cannot say how derivative his "Nutcracker" may be, however one entry in the cast list persuades me that ABT is performing a production unlike any other: Corps member Zhong-Jing Fang had the singular honor of being assigned the dual role to end all dual roles: Nanny/Sugar Plum Fairy.

Maloney never appears as the traditional, well-behaved nephew of eccentric old family friend Drosselmeyer (ABT's master character dancer Victor Barbee). He enters walking beside Barbee, wearing the cumbersome Nutcracker mask to establish his character's presence. After Maloney is absorbed by the crowd, Drosselmeyer presents Clara with the traditional Nutcracker Toy.

Ratmansky's re-telling of the familiar plot in his own way hits a few speed bumps, starting with the very first scene, now set in the Stahlbaum kitchen. I hoped I'd never have to see a more unpromising activity set to music than the ensemble of clerks merrily filing documents in Ronald Hynd's "The Merry Widow," but the cook, butler and maids desperately high-stepping their way through preparations for the kiddie party matches it in contrived tedium.

Turning the Toy Soldier's Act I solo into a pas de deux looked like a more promising attempt to be different when I was privileged to watch corps members Meaghan Hinkis and Luis Ribagorda rehearse it under Ratmansky's eagle eye. (I was interviewing the accomplished Ms. Hinkis at the time for Pointe Magazine.) The impressive efficiency and precision with which Ratmansky worked was matched by the dancers' unflagging delivery of his demands. A flurry of salutes initially recalled the original soldier before fleet footwork and angular poses took over. Dancing in practice clothes, Hinkis and Ribagorda brought a heightened linear clarity to their every move. At BAM when they performed as Canteen Keeper and Recruit in designer Richard Hudson's lumpish costumes, their line was so muffled they could bring little more than energy to the party. Energy was definitely demanded; this dance was the only music that conductor Ormsby Wilkins couldn't get through fast enough.

After the kitchen setting was whisked away to reveal the stately interior of the Stahlbaum mansion, the stage was soon aswarm with JKO tweens dressed entirely in black and white, under the command of Kai Monroe, an aggressive Fritz with matinee-idol potential. Jaded City Ballet-goers, numbed by the now all-too-familiar arrival of tiny tots from the School of American Ballet in winter gear accompanied by parents, may have welcomed the novelty of children -- especially older children -- being instantly introduced in a pack already rid of their scarves and coats. Anyone bothered by the toll that isolating the children from their parents takes on the essential sweetness of this festive scene should seek another "Nutcracker."

Ratmansky's production contains more grotesque E.T.A. Hoffmann-style overtones than any other I've seen in a traditional setting. (Mark Morris's insistently untraditional "The Hard Nut" is best appreciated by those tone deaf to Tchaikovsky's glistening score.) Ratmansky doesn't wait till Clara's dream to introduce what the program calls "Mice." The Stahlbaum's kitchen is infested with menacing creatures standing tall in Regency tailcoats and knee britches, their heads completely covered in masks with long nasty-looking muzzles. "Rats" is the name for these horrors. Only Little Mouse, a tiny creature danced by Justin Souriau-Levine, is a charmer who keeps popping up everywhere; after he emerged fro under Mother Ginger's voluminous skirt, I decided to call him Zelig.

Certainly there is nothing remotely "mousy" about the terrific beating the Rats later administer to the Nutcracker Boy; his mask permanently disappears under this bruising gangbang. And how about Our Clara's killing -- not distracting but killing -- the Mouse King with a well-aimed slipper? (A risky staging! It requires a little girl with a good arm and a marksman's eye, perched on the giant chair that grew during the first transformation scene.) Further ordeals await the kids in the Snow Scene, blandly set in a copse of Russian birches. The frigid cold soon reduces them to shivering wretches, supine on the stage, attended by indifferent Snowflakes whose fluttering hands seem to be fanning further chill their way. Even after Drosselmeyer arrives, pushing a little sleigh before him to offer protection, the Snowflakes keep after them. This is definitely one of the darker "Nutcracker"s no matter how the music glows.

American Ballet Theatre's Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg in Alexei Ratmansky's new version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." Photo by and copyright Gene Schiavone and courtesy ABT.

I regret to report that there's nothing especially spectacular about ABT's scenery changes. Excitement peaks only when our principal dancers Murphy and Hallberg make their eagerly awaited entrances. Although they dance very little, the audience breaks for intermission confident that rat-free ballet is about to begin.

The Kingdom of the Sweets, presided over by Nanny/Sugar Plum Fairy, proves to be "a riot of color" in both senses. Much of the $5 million has apparently gone for costumes that designer Hudson failed to create with a harmonious overview in mind. Clashing hues of red predominate when the stage overflows with dancers representing nationalities instead of high-calory treats. The quintet of Nutcracker's Sisters who dance to the music of the Marzipan Shepherdesses were a welcome contrast in their flowing green and white costumes; maybe next year their jaunty equestrienne top hats will be dyed a more harmonious color than faded beige -- anything but red.

Mikhail Ilyin, Craig Salstein and Arron Scott merrily throw each other around as Russians, wisely avoiding knee strain by not doing the trepak. Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin shun ethnic clichés as a Chinese pair. In Arabians, Sascha Radetsky, stripped to the waist, coolly keeps a quartet of smitten odalisques at bay. (Balanchine had originally cast Coffee with Francisco Moncion as a hookah-smoking nobleman fanned by parrots before he substituted the present sinuous odalisque in 1964 to do something "for the daddies.") Hudson's Flowers, traditionally clad in long skirts of pink petal-like overlapping for their ?Waltz,' attract a quartet of male Bees in black tights and vests of black and yellow horizontal stripes, topped by yellow hoods bristling with antenna.

The stage is cleared for the welcome return of Murphy and Hallberg, glistening in silver, for a virtuosic pas de deux laden with invention and a bit too much cuteness. The first section concludes with Hallberg seemingly unable to decide whether to end with Murphy glued to his side in a fish dive or perched atop him in a shoulder lift and, after trying both, deciding to wear her on his hip like a revolver -- silken control achieved with the strength of steel. Murphy looked pleasantly stunned by her partner's feat. The familiar Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy goes to her, of course, not to Nanny's avatar, and Ratmansky makes the worst of it: Murphy darts offstage just before the scampering coda begins on the celesta, remains out of sight for a second, sticks her head out from the wings with a "Fooled you!" grin in place and emerges to finish the solo with her customary dash. Squelching this jollity should be at the head of Ratmansky's "To Re-do for 2011" list, along with adding an early scene of Clara drifting off to dreamland, where over half of "Nutcracker" apparently occurs.

Clara is shown in bed only in the final scene, when it looks as if Ratmansky is actually going to make something of his double-cast characters: Nutcracker Boy and Nutcracker/Prince enter her bedroom from opposite sides of the stage with ritual solemnity. Apparently she is expected to choose between them. Instead, she reaches under her pillow and pulls out Nutcracker Toy. A PG-rated ending, if you don't consider Drosselmeyer's watching outside the second-story window the act of a dirty old man with levitation powers.

Compliments have been earned by this production, but the one word I cannot apply to Ratmansky's concept is "definitive." Balanchine's repeatedly earned that honor despite his occasionally breaking the traditional mold in his "Nutcracker," as when he borrowed music for ?The Awakening Scene' from "The Sleeping Beauty" as an entr'acte in 1955. This inspiration established that Clara -- pardon me, Marie -- has fallen asleep and visions of Sugar Plum will soon dance in her head. (NYCB's co-concertmaster Kurt Nikkanen's vigorous playing of the violin solo this season was a precious gift no one would exchange.)

Ratmansky's re-working of the beloved national dances of Act II impresses me as driven by a need to be different while Balanchine's strike me as a desire to be true to Tchaikovsky. Where spectacle is concerned, there's no contest because Balanchine knew when and how to choreograph for scenery. ABT's Christmas tree, which was trundled off into the wings before it got its growth, will never rival NYCB's ever-growing evergreen until BAM digs a trench onstage so it can slowly emerge to ever more awesome heights. (David Koch might supplement the budget if given the opportunity to make another speech.) The inexorably descending snowy forest of City Ballet's Transformation Scene looks doubly impressive because at center stage, performing a little "pirouette" in the falling flakes, is what the late critic Robert Garis called "the dream-like inspiration of the little wandering bed," a perfect device for demonstrating the tremendous scale of the forest. The resulting "Nutcracker" buzz can last throughout intermission.

New York City Ballet's Jennie Somogyi in George Balanchine's version of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker." Photo by and copyright Paul Kolnik and courtesy NYCB.

Some purists have never forgiven Balanchine for shifting Sugar Plum's solo to the start of Act II while depriving her Cavalier of his. There may have been some domestic reasoning behind this disruption: Maria Tallchief, Mrs. B No. 4 and the original Sugar Plum, had to be prominently displayed after waiting a full act to go on. ("I may be listed alphabetically," she famously once said, "but I won't be treated alphabetically.") Balanchine had given Tanaquil Le Clercq, soon to be Mrs. B No. 5, similar prominence by creating Dewdrop for her in his ?Waltz of the Flowers.' The unflagging ingenuity with which he devised a new step or phrase or formation for the corps to match Tchaikovsky's recurring music would have been rewarding enough, but after Dewdrop keeps flashing through to perform one glorious feat after another, ?Waltz' can be so overwhelming I sometimes fear the Pas de Deux is going to be an anticlimax. It usually takes no more than two measures to pull me into what Balanchine has created for the ballerina and her cavalier: A sequence of increasingly ardent approaches that builds to a rapturous fish dive.

I was fortunate enough to attend two different performances at City Ballet this winter as a guest of the company and my editor, Paul Ben-Itzak. I did not see two different definitive casts, however, because Jared Angle, Daniel Ulbricht and Sean Suozzi danced in both as, respectively, a thoroughly reliable but not an especially gallant-looking Cavalier, a predictably punchy Tea and a dashing Candy Cane. With her languid, lissome assurance and rock-steady balances in the finale, Teresa Reichlen took the honors as Coffee away from conscientious Gwyneth Muller. Jennie Somogyi's Sugar Plum had the edge over Jenifer Ringer in unforced musicality, imperious presence and what I can only term gracious hauteur. (I know, that sounds like an oxymoron; just take my word for it.) Under conductor Faycal Karoui, the orchestra played as if they actually looked forward to performing nothing but this treasure trove of piping hot chestnuts for over a month.

ABT and City Ballet are both at peak strength right now; either company could field several splendid casts apiece and an equal number of merely very good ones. On the evidence of this production, however, ABT is putting its JKO students to better use in the Act I party scene than NYCB is its SAB youngsters. (Balanchine's Act II choreography meticulously scaled for the abilities and energies of children is unimprovable and not at issue here.) JKO coaches Johanna Butow and Kate Lydon were working with tweens, an older, livelier breed free of the robotic look that now afflicts City Ballet's little partygoers; in Ratmansky's darker world, their vitality was welcome.

SAB's Garrielle Whittle needn't turn her tiny charges into juvenile delinquents to enliven the party scene, but she should allow them to behave like children, not pretend to be children. Why not motivate them by posing such queries as: "How would you greet your friends when they arrive for a party?" "Wouldn't you lash out at some hateful boy who tries to break up your circle of girlfriends?" "How would you get your buddies to play leapfrog?" "How would you behave if you didn't want to play leapfrog?" Surely the George Balanchine Foundation won't protest any alterations this Stanislavky-style search for motivation can bring. SAB's children remain uniformly adorable; one couple who couldn't have been a yard tall didn't seem to be having any fun at all.

Jonathan Alexander, the Little Prince at both City Ballet performances I caught, had previously earned his scene-stealer credits as the beggar boy who does back flips across the stage in Peter Martins's "Romeo + Juliet." Observing him recently at an SAB demonstration of boys' training, I was amazed that Alexander's a la second turns possessed more unwavering authority than those of some NYCB corps men. He was an exceptionally stalwart Prince when miming the fight with the Mouse King because he's blessed with the classic 2:1 ratio of legs to torso. What the future holds is anyone's guess. SAB instructor Jock Soto said at a demonstration that training boys is full of surprises: "They come back from summer vacation and they've grown a foot and you have to start all over again." Starting all over again with the Act I children's party wouldn't be a bad idea.

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