American Ballet Theater
Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York
December 14, 2011
by Tom Phillips
Like many New Yorkers, I grew up with George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, and have seen it so many times that it defines the ballet for me. So it came as something of a revelation to take the subway to Brooklyn and find a different conception of Tchaikovsky's classic. American Ballet Theater's new version, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, is settling into its second Christmas season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a worthy rival -- and a sharp contrast -- to Balanchine's Nutcracker at Lincoln Center.
Basically there are two kinds of Nutcrackers. In form, Balanchine's is an old-fashioned "suite ballet," a string of set pieces attached to a story that's not taken too seriously, and never resolved. It ends with the heroine still dreaming. Ratmansky's is more of a symphonic drama -- the story of a girl's awakening to romance and sexuality, with all its anxiety and danger. Here the story never goes away, and it ends in a literal awakening, back to adolescent angst and anticipation.
Balanchine's Marie is a girl of about ten, looking at love and sex only in abstract, idealized forms. The Nutcracker toy wins her sudden devotion for reasons she can't fathom, and when it turns into a prince he is a little model of courtly behavior, only taking her hand to dance or to walk her through the snow. In Act Two they are only observers, as the Sugar Plum Fairy puts on her parade of dancing pleasures.
Ratmansky's Clara is twelve or thirteen, and in the throes of puberty. Her Nutcracker changes form repeatedly, from a doll to a teenage boy to a grownup prince, and she herself is doubled by an adult princess, the lead ballerina. As a teenage boy her prince loses and then finds her in a driving, dangerous snowstorm; they embrace with abandon and and sleigh away to the Land of the Sweets. There, with the Sugar Plum Fairy acting only as a hostess, they morph into grownup lovers and wind up as bride and groom. The theme of sexual turmoil recurs throughout the second-act divertissements, in comic form. The Arabian dancer is a shirtless muscle-man with four competing, conspiring girlfriends; Mother Ginger is bothered by a mouse under her skirt; and the flowers are buzzed by goggle-eyed, flamboyant bees.
In the end, Clara wakes in her own bed, and her dream-lovers flee into the wings, leaving her only the toy nutcracker, with Drosselmeyer peeping benevolently through the bedroom window.
All this is staged with terrrific pace and gusto, and beautifully acted and danced for the most part. Young Mikaela Kelly made Clara's volatility look natural. Her little price, Theodore Elliman, showed signs of budding nobility. And their adult dream-forms, Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes, threw themselves into Clara's adolescent vision of perfect love as if they believed it themselves. Their timing wasn't quite perfect on opening night, but they hit the high points and their ardor never flagged.
If I were a judge on the "Battle of the Nutcrackers" playing this week on cable TV, I would have to give Act Two to Balanchine's version, for its unhurried, distinct delights, its sense of repose in action. But I would give Act One to ABT for pure energy and drama.
In Balanchine, the Stahlbaum's home is comfy, clean and well-ordered. Little Fritz is the only mischief-maker among the children, and he never gets away without a scolding. Ratmansky gives us the chaotic, animal underside of this gemutlich realm. Act One begins in the kitchen, overrun by servants, unauthorized children and mice. The party scene is dominated by unruly, demanding kids, with an out-of-control Fritz (Kai Monroe) as the ringleader. It's like an American home! The kids are bigger and more athletic here, so the battle scene spills all over the stage and into the wings. Finally the snowflakes turn into a blizzard that threatens to obliterate the children until Drosselmeyer rushes in to rescue them. Balanchine's Act One is a table-setter that leaves you with the pleasure of anticipation; Ratmansky's leaves you breathless.
Fortunately we have no prizes to hand out here. But I would recommend that all New York ballet-lovers pay a visit to BAM this month, if just to see something new and different. Ticket prices are about half of what they are now at New York City Ballet's David H. Koch Theater. In Brooklyn, a middle-class gemutlich household could still make The Nutcracker a holiday treat for the whole family.
Copyight 2011 by Tom Phillips
Photograph by Gene Schiavone