The Year Ends with the Ritual – The Nutcracker

Last night Daughter and I went to the annual Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker, “The Gift of Christmas Tour.” I had purchased senior tickets for $10 – can’t beat the price. We sat in the very, very top row, joining an exercise classmate and her husband who had also taken advantage of the ticket price.

You may have read already that I grew up in dance. My goal in life was to be a ballet teacher. I even went so far as to start college as a dance major. I performed in several civic ballet Nutcrackers as a snowflake and a “reed flute” or mirliton. The only photo of “dancer” me is posed as the latter. No, I won’t be sharing that image with you, thank you very much.

As our daughter grew up, we’d go to see the Nutcracker – a seasonal must and an easy introduction to classical music. We’d also watch every Nutcracker production on TV – Gelsey Kirkland, New York City, whatever. We frequently watched the shows I’d taped during the year through elementary school years.

Our local ballet companies production

We’ve seen our local ballet’s production at least once. One of Daughter’s classmates danced the role of Klara/Marie – the girl who receives and falls in love with the Nutcracker. Our company uses the Balanchine choreography and follows the ETA Hoffman story. I always thought that “Mr. B” tried to preserve the Russian Petipa/Ivanov choreography. What I learned was based on that, too.

At the first performance, seventeen year old Sergei Legat appeared as the Nutcracker, twelve year old Stanislava Stanislavovna Belinskaya as Clara, and an unidentified child dancer as a Gingerbread Man.
Image result for historic images nutcracker ballet
Imperial Ballet’s original production of The Nutcracker, circa 1900.

The ballet starts as guests come to the annual party at the elegant home of Klara’s parents. A series of dances by the adults and children follows. Drosselmeyer, the somewhat sinister toy maker, enters to the joy of the children. He presents dancing dolls.

Ekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Levashov and Vladimir Vasiliev (Bolshoi Theatre Artistic Director in 1990s) in the Bolshoi Balle
Ekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Levashov and Vladimir Vasiliev (Bolshoi Theatre Artistic Director in 1990s) in the Bolshoi Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” in 1970.

Klara is entranced by her Nutcracker doll, but her brother’s jealousy leads to it being damaged. Klara calms down and falls asleep to dreams of her brave Nutcracker who defeats an army of rats which invades the house. She saves the Nutcracker by hitting the rat king on the head with one of her slippers.

Amazingly, the Nutcracker is transformed into a Prince who transports Klara through the Land of Snow to the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy. There they are feted with a number of divertissements (I’ve already written that I learned my French from years in the ballet studio) or dances which are what most people remember of the show. The ballet closes as Klara wakes from this marvelous dream with her Nutcracker beside her.

The Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker choreography and story were different. The ballet started off the same. We joined the wondrous holiday party in the gracious home huge, decorated tree and all. Drosselmeyer was brightly costumed, not the usual somewhat mysterious character. He also took a much larger role in Act I and, in fact, was the impresario in Act II. The doll dancers he introduced to the glee of the children were a Harlequin, a “Kissy” Doll, and Moor Dolls. These characters are fluid and often vary in different productions. The Nutcracker is damaged; Klara/Masha in this case is calmed and goes to bed. The dream followed as usual.

Image result for moscow ballet’s great russian nutcracker
Image result for moscow ballet’s great russian nutcracker

Land of Snow

At the end of Act I, an elegant sleigh appears to take Klara/Masha from the Land of Snow to … well … I think that’s the last we saw of her and the Nutcracker Prince. Act II was full of lots of changes. They no longer sat and watched the dances which are performed for their entertainment in other productions.

Instead, we were welcomed to the Land of Peace and Harmony by the Dove of Peace – a male dancer in all white wearing huge white wings. But wait, as the Dove slowly circled you could make out that one wing was in fact another dancer stretched out almost vertically along one raised arm/wing ( Oh, the surprise that filled the hall as the second dove descended and the two danced. Hmmm …

In absentia, Klara/Masha and the Nutcracker Prince were then escorted on a journey through five lands by Drosselmeyer. The programs tells us that they “celebrate the world’s great heritages; African, Asian, European, Hispanic and Slavic.” Hmmm. The dances represented, in order – Chinese (Asian), Arabian (is this African?), French (European), Spanish (Hispanic), and Russian (Slavic). Hmmm …

Arabian Dance

Historically, the Act II variations have been based on delicacies found in the Land of the Sweets, reigned over by the Sugar Plum Fairy. In the Balanchine and other versions the dances are associated with treats – Spanish dance, chocolate; Arabian dance, coffee; Chinese dance, tea; Shepherdesses/Mirlitons, marzipan; Russian or Trepak dance, candy canes; and finally Mother Ginger who disgorges her many children. Last night there was no Mother Ginger and no many children.

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Mother Ginger at our local ballet

If you’ve been following the recent rhetorical conversations about ballet and appropriation, you’ll recall some hubbub about the Nutcracker’s Chinese dance. It has since its inception promoted stereotypes that present-day choreographers are trying to correct. There’s lots on the web if you’re interested, here’s what appeared in Dance Magazine –

Image result for moscow ballet’s great russian nutcracker Chinese dancers
Do the fingers refer to chopsticks?

Moscow Ballet’s version of the Arabian dance, like the Dove(s), predominantly featured acrobatics ( The audience cheered loudly at end. I have no idea which music was applied to the newly instated French dance. The “Hispanic” dance was purely Spanish … And the Russian was, of course, the popular trepak with men jumping and women in twirling skirts.

Act II closed with the large corps de ballet’s waltz, no longer characterized as candy flowers. And of course a nicely performed pas de deux – I’m not sure what characters were dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy seemed to have been exiled! And then, voila, Klara/Masha awoke from her dream.

Each variation was accompanied with a large figure in the background which apparently added character in case you could not figure out where the dancers were supposed to be from. The French figure was a unicorn, go figure? Dancers were also accompanied by children in character dress. Daughter and I agreed afterward that we did not know where to look during the variations – at the featured dancers, the hulking figures, or the utterly cute kids. I noticed that some of the kids were on pointe! What a surprise. Long ago I learned that even if you attend Miss Tippy Toes Dance Studio, students don’t advance to pointe until the bones in their feet are more formed about 12-13 years old.

I was unable to read the program while at the theater. As well as being in the nose-bleed section, our seats had limited lighting; I did not want to join the masses by pulling out my cellphone to get light. Do theater-goers where you live persistently use their cell phones throughout the show? When I opened the program later, I saw quotations by Michele Obama; their daughter Sasha had a child’s role in this production some years ago. The children in the show are recruited locally. Cute.

I’m sorry that the Moscow Ballet’s version was not the best I’ve seen. The dancing was not sharp and clean; lots of unpointed toes and sloppy fifth positions. Coupled with the changed story, last night’s performance did not give the wow experience I’d had from past Nutcrackers.

Image result for moscow ballet’s great russian nutcracker
Image result for moscow ballet’s great russian nutcracker

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