Schimmel Center Theater, Pace University, New York, NY; December 13 (e), 2014

Jerry Hochman

Dawn Gierling as Marie in Gelsey Kirkland Ballet's 'The Nutcracker'. Photo © Luis Pons.

Dawn Gierling as Marie in Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’.
Photo © Luis Pons.

It’s clear that Gelsey Kirkland Ballet co-Artistic Directors Ms. Kirkland and her Michael Chernov have grand ambitions for the company. Each of the two performances I saw earlier this year was marked by a level of professionalism and attention to detail that is extraordinary for a company still in its infancy. These qualities were evident in GK Ballet’s “Nutcracker” as well.

This “Nutcracker”, ardently performed by young dancers from the Gelsey Kirkland Studio Company and students from the Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet, is not at the same level as those of New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre, and one shouldn’t expect that. But it’s not a small, local or neighborhood production either. What it is, is an entertaining version of the essential story, piloted by enthusiastic and engaging dancers, that somehow manages to feel both bigger than it is and unusually intimate at the same time.

The production is choreographed and directed by Mr. Chernov after Vasili Vainonen, and certain choreographic segments are specifically and exclusively attributed to this renowned Soviet choreographer, who worked primarily with the Mariinsky (then the Kirov) Ballet. He created his “Nutcracker” in 1934, and it is the work for which he is most famous – his version is still in the Mariinsky repertoire.

Vainonen’s version, from which other variations have sprung, is considered by many to be the standard Russian interpretation. Here, the young girl (called Marie, or Masha, rather than Clara) is on the cusp of adolescence, and the story essentially is a coming of age onto which the basic “Nutcracker” story is grafted – or the other way around. In contrast, for his version, George Balanchine went back to the original score and Hoffmann story, and kept to the outlines of the dances as originally given at the Mariinsky.

The Vainonen version also features changes in certain story locations and characters from those to which audiences may be accustomed. Essentially, there’s no Sugar Plum Fairy (fairies were so nineteenth century), no Land of the Sweets, no decadent, bourgeois excess. Instead, Marie’s dream expands beyond the confines of the Stahlbaum home to a snowy Land Above the (Christmas) Tree, and then to the Prince’s Kingdom (aka The Theater of Life), which is found somewhere in the atmosphere Above the Clouds. But these differences are little more than a curiosity to the casual viewer: the essentials of the story are the same. There’s a young girl, her bratty brother, a strange uncle named Drosselmeyer, a toy nutcracker, and a dream in which the Nutcracker comes to life, becomes a Prince, and he and Marie are transported to a place filled with strange and wondrous inhabitants who dance strange and sometimes wondrous dances. The young girl and the prince dance this grandiose Grand Pas De Deux at their wedding, and then the girl wakes up – presumably a hormone rush further from childhood.

What impresses most about the choreography for this production is its overall sense of circularity. By that I mean that the movement frequently (though not exclusively) proceeds in a circular rather than linear fashion. The dances in the Stahlbaum home are circular; there’s little prancing up and down some proscribed linear track. The Snowflake dance, which is attributed solely to Vainonen (staging by Lyubov Frominich), is gorgeous, and its visual transmission is circular – more so than in other productions. To my recollection, this is the choreography that Mikhail Baryshnikov used in his wonderful version for ABT, in which Ms. Kirkland danced Clara. This visual approach fosters a sense of welcoming, of ‘family’, rather than regimented-looking formality.

The Chinese Dance, from Gelsey Kirkland Ballet's 'The Nutcracker'.  Photo © Luis Pons

The Chinese Dance, from Gelsey Kirkland Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’.
Photo © Luis Pons

What is also impressive is the quality of certain of the dances in Act II. The Spanish, Arabian, and Russian dances are interestingly crafted (although the Arabian Dance looked more Indian, as if spiritually hijacked from “La Bayadere”), the Grand Pas de Deux features intricate, highly complex partnering, and the Chinese Dance is one of the best versions I’ve seen – instead of ethnic caricatures, this dance looked bright and colorful to me as joyous as a Lunar New Year celebration.

There are other nice touches. For example, in the course of Marie’s dream things grow in size. That’s standard. But what grows here is unusual. After the festivities end, the toy soldiers are placed in a vertical toy cupboard, which morphs into a huge cabinet that serves as a holding area for the living ‘toy soldiers’ who, when summoned, spring from the cabinet and participate in the mouse/soldier battle. Neat.

But it’s not all perfect. Drosselmeyer is described as a toymaker, which fits into his presentation of the dolls Columbine and Harlequin in Act I, but little else. And he’s presented as a relatively dull, wooden presence – appropriate, perhaps, for the creator of wooden dolls, but dramatically bland. Even Dr. Coppélius, also an invention of Hoffmann, has more personality than the Drosselmeyer does here. The ‘forecasting’ presumably created by Columbine and Harlequin ‘wooden’ dancing dolls in the first act, leading to the ‘live’ child miniature Columbine and Harlequin in the Land Above the Clouds in Act II, and by the mini ‘Ambassador’ dolls in Act I leading to the soloists in the divertissements in Act II, is complicated and lost unless a viewer is hunting for it. And the creation of a doll-like character called Mortal Time, released when that bratty brother opens Drosselmeyer’s Grandfather Clock (from which the Harlequin and Columbine had spring earlier), much the way Pandora opened that Box (to the somewhat macabre music accompanying Balanchine’s ‘Soldier’ or Ratmansky’s ‘Canteen Keeper’ and ‘Recruit’), regardless of whether it has any significance in the original libretto, comes across as meaningless (though possibly scary) here. Finally, Drosselmeyer ‘fixes’ the damage to the nutcracker doll caused by Fritz (‘accidentally’, the program notes indicate) by binding the toy’s arm to its torso with a blue scarf-like wrap. Why, in the final moments when Marie is back in her bed awakening from her dream, does she neither cradle the nutcracker nor stare out the window into her future – but looks lovingly up at the blue scarf that she holds over her head?

The GK Ballet dancers and students did a fine job overall. Dawn Gierling and Johnny Almeida danced well as Marie and her Nutcracker Prince. I particularly appreciated their execution of the Grand Pas de Deux: they did more than just get through it – they did the choreography justice. Mr. Almeida also portrayed a commanding military general during the ‘Midnight Battle’ between his legions and the Mice. Very impressive. In other respects, however, their acting needs to be ratcheted up – I’ve seen both perform in other pieces previously, and each is capable of delivering more animation. As Drosselmeyer, Marko Micov executed the basic movement assigned to the character, but added little characterization of his own beyond looking looming and brooding, though this appears to have been the production’s intent.

The divertissements generally featured a lead couple and supporting corps. Most impressive were Nicole Assaad and Kaito Yamamoto, who led the Chinese Dance, and the Russian Dance soloists Katrina Crawford and Anderson Souza. But In all respects the execution by all these young dancers was commendable. Although the school has been around a relatively short time, and reflects an eclectic group of students of varying backgrounds and experiences, they have been well-prepared, and presented as stylistically coherent.

Anyone attending GK Ballet’s “Nutcracker” anticipating the bells and whistles of the major companies might be disappointed. But this version has many virtues, not the least of which is the enthusiasm of its dancers, and the opportunity to be close enough to the stage action to feel like a guest at the Stahlbaum’s Christmas Party. And who knows – with the unfortunate departure of ABT’s current version of the ballet to Southern California next year, this production may become the city’s next best Nutcracker alternative.