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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Nutcrackerthon Diaries - Nutcracker, Buttcracker, Nutcracker Rouge, Hard Nut

Hyltin and Veyette, photo @Andrea Mohin
By a mix of chance and calculation I ended up seeing five Nutcrackers in one week. Strike that. I ended up seeing two Nutcrackers proper and three Nutcracker-inspired shows in one week. It was an ambitious undertaking but I survived and am still alive to write about it! Here are the Nutcracker diaries I kept for this week:

December 5, 2015 - NYCB Nutcracker - I'm at the alpha and omega of Nutcrackers (and let's face it, NYC Christmas-themed shows), Mr. Balanchine's ageless take on Tchaikovsky's ballet. The theater was packed with a good mix of hardcore balletomanes and families. The performance demonstrates NYCB's current strength as a company -- it's the middle of the chaotic Nut season, and they can put together such a strong cast from the principal roles to the soloist variations to the corps de ballet to the SAB children.

Let's get the bad out of the way first: I think NYCB might need some re-coaching about Coffee. Often this dance becomes a tallish corps de ballet member joylessly contorting herself into the requisite positions all the while missing the aroma and sensuality of the dance. Last night's Meagan Mann was no different. Another joyless contortion act. Alan Peiffer was a bit blank as Drosselmeyer.

Now onto the good (and there was so much good). Sterling Hyltin was the Sugarplum Fairy, and the role highlights all her strengths -- her warmth and charm, her lovely fluttery arms, her buoyant jump. Hyltin doesn't have the laser-precision attack for some of Balanchine's black and white leotard ballets. Her limbs can't slice through the air like a knife. But there's a softness and sweetness to her that is enchanting. In the celesta variation she practically twinkled, and it wasn't just her wand. It was the lightness and, well, fairy-like aura that matched Tchaikovsky's delicate music. She is not a SuperJumper in the Natalia Osipova sense at all but she knows how to make each jump look so light and effortless, to give the impression of flying. In the grand pas de deux she put on a master class of how to show off one's strengths. The pliant back bends, wafting arms and effortless extensions created an aura of romance and magic. Her ménage of pique turns wasn't fast, but she did accelerate them to give the illusion of speed. Andrew Veyette was her steadfast partner and he expertly coordinated the big moments in the pdd: the shoulder jumps, pulling the SPF in that sliding arabesque, and the tricky hand positions in the final promenade before he let her go for one long, sustained balance. Audience limp from happiness. Veyette isn't the most dynamic dancer, but what a beautiful partner he is and he is always musical and elegant.

Tiler Peck as the Dewdrop, photo by Paul Kolnik
 Tiler Peck (Dewdrop) is one of those dancers who technically can do anything. Dewdrop is therefore the perfect role for her -- this whizbang role of constant jumps, balances, pirouettes, fouettés, and whatever else was awe-inspiring and the perfect foil to Hyltin's sweet, nurturing SPF. Peck radiated authority -- when she entered, the excellent flower corps de ballet folded immediately parted ways for their queen. Other standouts in this performance: Anthony Huxley's Candy Cane, the amazing snowflakes (many of them apprentices), and of course, the children of SAB, who never made a mistake, whether it was in the party scene, the battle scene, or as the angels or as candy canes and Mother Ginger's polichinelles. Avery Lin (Marie) and Emil José Kelso (Prince) already display a proud épaulement and impressive turnout. When the Prince tears off his mask and bowed to the audience in tendu they applauded ecstatically. As a sidenote, the SAB children were notably more racially diverse than they have been in the past.

The richness of Balanchine's choreography is what keeps me going back to this ballet over and over again. The snowflake scene is unparalleled -- no other Nutcracker comes close to evoking both the beauty and ferocity of a blizzard -- when the snowflakes make that whirling blizzard pattern on the floor I always feel both thrilled and awed. Every time I see Balanchine's Nut I also focus on something new besides revisiting the familiar wonders-- last night it was the mice. Balanchine's mice are the most endearing, funny, and, well, human mice of any Nutcracker. Alexei Ratmansky's mice are mischievous but Balanchine's mice are all individualized -- some are skittish and scratch themselves in that nervous tick any animal owner will recognize, others are brave and go right into battle, others just stare on the sidelines and act like cheerleaders. Compared to the children's army Balanchine's mice are the more rootable bunch. When the mouse king dies and his mice subjects sob as they drag him offstage, it's actually sad. And that's what's great about Mr. B's Nutcracker -- its humanity, warmth, and beauty.

December 6, 2015 - The Buttcracker - No comment. Two and a half hours of my life I'll never get back. A mishmash of "dance," "comedy," and "musical" (I use quotation marks because I can't really say that anything they did was actually dance, comedy, or singing)  that managed to be none of those things. The actors kept forgetting their "jokes" and would often start over again, which just ruined an already unfunny punch line. The jokes were not only unfunny, they were strangely offensive -- writer and director Elise Maurine Milner seemed to think repeating the same gay/anorexic/Jewish jokes 20 times over would equal entertainment. About 30 minutes of low-rent stand-up comedy/variety act wrapped in an ENDLESS two and a half hour mess. Moving on.

Marie Claire and the snowflakes in Nutcracker Rouge

December 10, 2015Nutcracker Rouge - now THIS is how to put on a Nutcracker-inspired show! Company XIV's Nutcracker Rouge combines Cirque-du-Soleil acrobatics with drag queen dancing/comedy/singing with S&M style striptease. Think it sounds very Vegas? Well you'd be wrong. First of all, director and choreographer Austin McCormack has assembled a cast of well-trained dancers, singers and performers and the show never for a moment looks anything but professional. Second of all, the affection and even reverence for Tchaikovsky's ballet is evident in the presentation -- it's not a parody so much as a homage. The score of the Nutcracker is ingeniously woven in with Lady Gaga, Sia, Lana del Rey, and even baroque opera. The show is bawdy, funny, naughty, campy, but it's never trashy.

The story actually adheres to many versions of the Nutcracker: an innocent Marie-Claire (Laura Careless) finds her sexual awakening. The grand pas de deux becomes an erotic, orgasmic mating dance. There are too many wonderful moments in Nutcracker Rouge to name but here's a few -- an incredible acrobatics dancer named Marcy Richardson doing a Pink imitation by swinging on hoops while singing a French version of Sia's "Chandelier," the oddly beautiful waltz of the snowflakes, two male dancers slinking sensuously in the "Turkish" delight, the aforementioned grand pas de deux, and a clever send-up of the Mother Ginger number where the "children" who run out of the dress are actually wolves in drag. 

Here's two grainy videos I took:




A hearty singer named Shelly Watson (Madame Drosselmeyer) narrated the whole evening through a mix of song and jokes. She often went into the audience like a game-show host. The small, intimate Minetta Lane Theatre was deliberately given a smoky, 19th century burlesque show decor. The whole thing was tons of fun and I definitely recommend this for anyone just looking for a great time. It also appeared to be a very popular date night destination. Plenty of couples snuggling through the whole thing.


 GKB Nutcracker. Sabina Alvarez and Anderson Souza were Marie and Prince

December 11, 2015 - Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet Nutcracker - less than 24 hours later I was at another Nutcracker. Gelsey Kirkland was my introduction to ballet. The film she made with Mikhail Baryshnikov of The Nutcracker I used to watch every year on PBS. At that time I didn't know about her tumultuous career and personal life. I just thought she and Misha made the most beautiful couple. Seeing her own version of the Nutcracker brought back a lot of memories, as her version drew obvious inspiration from Baryshnikov's production. The Prince's (Anderson Souza) first appearance starts with Marie (Sabina Alvarez, an Irina Dvorovenko lookalike) leaping into his arms, a direct echo of the Mikhail Baryshnikov production. Even the costumes (a delicate nightie and mini-crown for Marie, bejeweled white top for the Prince) resembled those of the ABT/Baryshnikov film. The male variation in the grand pas de deux had a series of tour jetés that one could imagine Misha tossing off in his sleep. The other striking similarity is the omnipresent, loving role Drosselmeyer (Akop Akapian) has in Marie's life. The ballet ends not with Marie holding her Nutcracker but dreamily cradling the green sash Drosselmeyer used to fix the broken arm of the nutcracker doll.

Kirkland her husband Michael Chernov have followed the basic Vassily Vainonen framework of making this ballet a romantic dream, but have added their own special touches. There was no Land of the Sweets, but rather a Theatre in the Sky. Kirkland also borrowed from the New York City Ballet's version. For instance, Gelsey Kirkland's use of the gliding angels and Prince's mime in to start the second act echoes George Balanchine's Nutcracker. The choreography made no exceptions for the fact that this was a student performance. The awakening pas de deux had some Soviet style upside down swinging lifts that seemed to tax both the Marie and Prince. The snowflakes and waltz of the flowers choreography was Vainonen's, the grand pas de deux seems based on the 1892 Ivanov notations. If you have seen the Balanchine version or Sir Peter Wright's version for the Royal Ballet, you will see many similarities -- the deep lunging arabesques, the shoulder jumps, the grand flourishing ending. 

The national dances appear to be Kirkland/Chernov's own, and they reflect the high-mindedness of the production. The Russian dance had authentic looking folk costumes and Koki Yamaguchi in the solo (he also doubled as Fritz) wowed the audience with a series of Russian-style split leaps. The Arabian dance was obviously coached to the bone with the soloists and corps' arms, hands, and torso all moving slowly and sensuously as if in a hookah-induced dream. In fact, I thought the national dances were more original and less formulaic than I've seen in many professional companies.  

Katia Raj and Gustavo Ramirez as the Arabian soloists

This was essentially a student performance, and shouldn't be judged the way one might judge a professional ballet company. For the most part the GKB Academy students and her studio company acquitted themselves well with the choreography -- even though the Academy opened only five years ago, they seem to have been trained in a tasteful classical style. No flashy extensions, no gala circuit tricks. The women have the light airy jumps and soft landings for which Kirkland herself was so famous. 

The location of the performance was a bit problematic. The GKB Academy has moved to a new location in DUMBO, Brooklyn. It's a large abandoned-looking warehouse that presumably gave the academy more space and cheaper rent. The makeshift auditorium and stage were intimate, but there were absolutely no wings to speak of, so dancers and stagehands could be seen standing right on the sides of the stage. There were some mishaps -- during the snow scene one stage hand accidentally dumped a bucket of snow all at one time and the snowflakes had to gingerly dance around a pile of snow confetti awkwardly lumped on one corner of the stage. But overall even with these caveats you had to admire the beautiful costumes (the snowflakes were particularly lovely) and attention to detail, down to the pretty ribboned dress and fluffy pantaloons Marie wore in the party scene. 

The snowflakes
Despite all these attributes overall I admired the production and performance more than I enjoyed it. Whether you take to this version or not probably depends on whether you think Nutcracker can or should be played as a solemn, almost Victorian love story. The tone of the production was set in the very first few minutes when Marie placed an angel on the Christmas tree and looked up at the heavens. In fact, this might be the most sober Nutcracker I've ever seen. Personally I think GKB version is at times very lovely and romantic but it could use some humor and a lighter touch. The design and dramaturgy are serious to the point of being a mite constipated. But again, this is just my personal taste.

But still, this is an ambitious and worthy undertaking by the legendary ballerina, who could be seen walking about during intermission. She appeared so concentrated and deep in thought that no one dared approach her. 

The opening party scene of The Hard Nut, photo by Susan Millman

December 12, 2015 - Mark Morris's The Hard Nut - My Nutcrackerthon ended at BAM, in Mark Morris's now revered The Hard Nut. The ballet premiered in 1991 and has since become a holiday classic. Morris resets the ballet in the 1960's. Marie (Lauren Grant) is part of a dysfunctional family with drunken, self-absorbed parents (Mark Morris and John Heginbotham as Dr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum) and an oversexed sister Louise (Jenn Wendel) and a tiny terror of a brother (June Omura). The only sources of stability for Marie are the housekeeper (the wonderfully witty Kraig Patterson, the creator of the role) and Dr. Drosselmeier (Billy Smith). In the second act Drosselmeier tells the story of the worldwide search for the Hard Nut, the only thing that can break the ugly spell cast on Princess Pirlipat. The costumes and decor (by Martin Pakledinaz and Adrianne Lobel, respectively) are full of stark black and white and primary colors -- a self-conscious reaction against the pastel tutus that usually dominate Nutcracker productions. 

The crowd absolutely loved the whole thing. They laughed at every single drunken sight gag in the opening party scene. They cheered happily when Mark Morris walked onstage as Dr. Stahlbaum. They screamed with joy when the snowflakes threw handfuls of snow into the air (admittedly a beautiful moment). They ate up each national dance, especially the crowd-pleasing Russian dance. They applauded heartily when in the coda of the second act much of the cast (including Mark Morris) completed a series of turns a la seconde. And of course they burst into cheers when the TV played the "closing credits" as the ballet ended.

I'm not going to argue with success, but I couldn't help but think though that the audience was loving the show for all the wrong reasons. I think they viewed the whole thing as a funny parody of the Nutcracker. Men in drag! Drunken, oversexed Christmas party! The man himself Mark Morris dancing! I didn't think the show was funny at all, and what's more, I'm not sure it was meant to be a series of funny sight gags. To me the story had very dark subtext, and there was humor, but it was rather perverse humor and not easy giggles. Drosselmeier is presented as a pedophile. The uncomfortably close relationship Drosselmeier has with children is highlighted in the first act when Marie hugs Drosselmeier but then leaps into his arms and straddles him, and again during the "Awakening" pas de deux when Drosselmeier has a rather ecstatic pas de deux with his young doppleganger (Aaron Loux). Lauren Grant as Marie herself is somewhat terrifying -- she almost looks like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane with her Shirley Temple hair and inscrutably child-like face and demeanor. It reminded me of that episode of Mad Men where Don Draper went on a drug-induced haze and dreamed of killing an ex-girlfriend. Even the romantic climax of the second act is perverse -- Marie falls in love not with the "Nutcracker Prince" but with the young version of Drosselmeier. The ending is actually rather bleak -- Louise and Fritz watch Marie go off into new adventures on their old TV in the living room, and the housekeeper shoos them to bed. But the audience giggled through the whole thing. 

Snowflakes, photo by Stephanie Berger

As with quite a bit of Mark Morris I found the ideas and concept more interesting than the actual choreography. I admire his insistence on using live music, and the fact that he doesn't cut or rearrange any of Tchaikovsky's score. But as to the actual dancing, it was only intermittently interesting. There's a few exceptions -- the snow scene is justifiably famous. A joyful, life-affirming dance where both men and women dressed alike leap across the stage and throw fistfuls of snow in the air. The Russian dance is also exhilarating. But he overuses certain effects. The opening party had a suite of dances that parodied 1960's/70's dance crazes. Of course it becomes a drunken bump and grind. The first time -- funny. The second time -- funny. But by the fiftieth time the act wears old. I also disliked the choreography for the grand pas de deux. Overly fussy, with Marie and Young Drosselmeier lost amid the crowd of dancers onstage. Tchaikovsky's music at that moment almost demands intimacy, not swarms of people. 

But again, maybe I'm thinking too much. Maybe The Hard Nut is just a funny send-up of the Nutcracker. I would have enjoyed the whole thing a lot more had I gotten into that mindset.
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And so concludes my one week Nutcracker marathon. Some final thoughts: it's a testament to Tchaikovsky's score that I can hear it so many times in one week and not grow sick of it. I'd always wanted to go on a Nutcrackerthon -- the Nutcracker phenomenon in America has even been the subject of a book and I wanted to explore the many different forms and variations of this Christmas tradition. I'm a bit bummed that Alexei Ratmansky's version is no longer in town and I didn't get a chance to catch The Yorkville Nutcracker. Even though no Nutcracker came close to matching the beauty and perfection of Mr. B's version I'm happy I put myself through this Nutcrackerthon -- in a way, it was like Marie's journey. I went to places I never thought I'd go (burlesque strip-show Nutcracker Rouge), places I didn't want to go (the excruciating Buttcracker), but now the dream is over and I move from the Kingdom of the Sweets to the next Christmas tradition in NYC -- Alvin Ailey Dance Company on Tuesday. 

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