“The Nutcracker” (Alexei Ratmansky)
American Ballet Theatre
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Thursday, December 8, 2011
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2011 by Alexandra Tomalonis
Perhaps the most magical thing about Alexei Ratmansky’s very magical “The Nutcracker,” which American Ballet Theatre has brought to D.C. for a long weekend’s worth of performances, is that it has been so refreshed and reimagined that it feels brand new. You never know what is going to happen next, and there were delighted laughs as well as happy gasps of surprise throughout the evening on opening night. There is plenty of comedy and charm in this production, but there is serious dancing, too, including two absolutely gorgeous pas de deux, and there isn’t a cliché in sight.
When we do see the party, it’s (deliberately) a bit colorless. Richard Hudson’s costumes are charmingly Biedermeier, but the children, and the dolls the toymaker Drosselmeyer brings for their entertainment, are dressed in black and white. There are about dozens of spirited, very active (and very well-rehearsed) children. When they dance, it’s in a rather awkward and charming way, as real children would dance at a real party, not like dancers at a school recital. The nannies and Clara’s godfather Drosselmeyer (a very kindly Victor Barbee) look after the children while the adults head for the refreshments, spending most of the act with their backs to their offspring. Fritz (Theodore Elliman) is exceptionally spirited, rather like the tiny mouse, and misbehaves, perhaps to get attention. Clara (Mikaela Kelly) is lovely, on the verge of adulthood, with very good manners. The parents are absorbed with each other (the father is wonderfully ardent) and the children must be lonely. There’s a reason that Clara is searching for love.
She finds it in her Christmas present from Drosselmeyer: a nutcracker doll whom Clara instantly imagines to be a real boy just her age, who treats her with the same Romantic attention with which her father treats her mother. Clara’s imagination may originally be disturbed by mice, but when she sleeps, she doesn’t merely dream of soldiers and sugar plums, but of her future in a very vivid way. There’s a bit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in this Clara, in her confused attempts to interpret adult life, and in how things shrink and grow around her. One of the most delightful surprises is the way Clara’s chair is exchanged for a HUGE chair, bringing the mice into scale.
After a very well-plotted battle, when the mice have been slain (with the help of Clara's deadly aim with her shoe) and the Nutcracker Boy has been transformed into a Prince, the scene changes to a snowstorm, and Ratmansky’s most original touch: there’s no Snow Queen or Sugar Plum. The two big pas de deux in this ballet are danced by the same couple (Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes on Thursday), who are Clara’s vision of herself and her young prince grown up. The point is made in the most charming way. The children begin to dance – mixing a snowball fight into the dancing, as any children their age would do during a snowstorm, and share the stage with their alter egos. The grown up dancers are obviously in love, and dance as even the best young ballet students can only dream of dancing, but they’re playful as well; it’s Clara’s girl-dream of love. The snowflakes swoosh about in beautiful patterns, and, at times, with the awkwardness of the children at the party, for what other dancing has Clara seen? The snow is very thick in this production, dangerously so, and Drosselmeyer has to rescue Clara and her Nutcracker Boy and whisk them away in a sleigh to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The Sugar Plum Fairy is another surprise. She’s a motherly hostess (danced by Zhong-Jing Fang, plump in her elaborate Mid-eastern-flavored costume, who was Clara’s nanny back home). This magic kingdom has everything Clara’s home lacks: color, love, sweet order, and good manners. The first people we meet are four little pages and four little fairies, who interact with acres of solemn, formal mime beautifully set on the music. Four bees, elegant gentlemen in evening clothes, buzz around, going from group to group, gossiping and taking note of everything that’s going on. And there is a familiar hustle/bustle, as the guests crowd around the young visitors to hear their story.
Sugar Plum is so taken with Clara’s bravery that she calls for entertainment, and the way the divertissement dances differ – a pas de deux for tea, a short story for coffee, etc. – is very much in the 19th century tradition. The most original of them is the Arabian. Instead of the usual seductive hoochy-goochy dance by a female belly dancer, Sascha Radetsky (bare-chested and bald) is pursued by four bossy, giddy wives, each vying for first place in wonderfully individual ways. The Russians (Mikhail Ilyin, Craig Salstein and Aaron Scott) are lovably clumsy and not as smart or precise as the Chinese (Sarah Lane and Daniil Simkin). There’s a pas de cinq for “Nutcracker’s Sisters” danced to the Marzipan music that’s full of beautiful, quick footwork and épaulement. The Polchinelles, a bit unruly, tear out from under Mother Ginger’s skirts and prance about. When they return, on cue, for their exit, they quickly pop out again, chased by the tiny mouse from home who suddenly shows up in Clara’s dream.
The Waltz of the Flowers is quite beautiful, with the bees partnering the flowers. This has caused comment, one reads, but ballet needs men as flowers need bees. There were men in the original Waltz (and in the second act of “Swan Lake,” not to mention a male corps de ballet in most pre-Romantic ballets) and it’s good to have them back.
Marcelo Gomes is one of the most Romantic heroes on the stage today, and he was the perfect girl-dream Prince, with perfect manners, perfect dancing, and loving, perfect partnering. As Clara grown up, Veronika Part was absolutely lovely, dancing at her best. Ratmansky seems to understand Part's gifts, and his choreography suits her, shows her strengths (oh, the soaring jumps!), and sets her free. Part has the most beautifully clear positions I’ve ever seen, and I think if Beauchamp or Petipa could have flown down to watch, they would have loved them. Part’s dancing is never static, though; it’s as though she luxuriates in those positions, as she luxuriates in dancing with a partner, pressing back against his body and using it to propel and inspire her dancing.
At the end of the pas de deux, we’re jerked back to the reality that this is Clara’s dream, when Clara’s book-reading, Biedermeier schoolgirl background takes over. The Princess has been a bit sad (Why? She’s dancing with Marcelo Gomes!) and one realizes that dancing is no longer enough for her. She wants a Proposal and all the trimmings. He finally asks her to marry him, a ring and a veil are produced, and we know they will live happily ever after. Clara goes back to her bed, and we wish the same for her.
Photos, both by Gene Schiavone.