David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY
November 27, 2015
To New Yorkers in the know, the holiday season does not begin with Santa’s appearance at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Salvation Army bell-ringers, the tree-lighting at Rockefeller Center, Fifth Avenue store windows, the lighting of the “world’s largest menorah,” or Santacon. It begins with the season’s first performance of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” at New York City Ballet.
For those scrooges who consider The Nutcracker to be an excuse to charge ridiculously exorbitant ticket prices to see a fair to middling ballet chestnut overshadowed by the company’s many ornamental ballet jewels, I say “humbug.” That’s not the point. Aside from the fact that it includes some awesome staging and nifty ballet (mainly in Act II), all wrapped in Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s gorgeous set, Karinska’s magnificent costumes, and Tchaikovsky’s magical score, the ballet provides an indelible cherished memory for children (for whom it is often their first ballet experience), and for parents who want to provide the same experience they had as a child. And it’s far more enduring than a helping or two of piecaken.
When you’ve seen this production as frequently as I and many attendees have, there are no surprises: it’s the same every year. That’s not the point either. The spectacle and the genius never gets tiring because there’s always something that one notices for the first time. And it’s also an opportunity for regular balletgoers to see new faces. During the long five-plus week Nutcracker season, NYCB keeps it fresh by giving opportunities for up and coming dancers to gain invaluable featured-role experience: principals yield to soloists and soloists to corps dancers as the season progresses. And if you can wean your eyes away from the 41-foot growing Christmas Tree, or the Snowflake scene, or the gliding Sugarplum Fairy, and look at the faces of children seated nearby, the reason for this production’s success is clear.
During intermission, I overheard one disappointed man say to another, referring to Act I: “But there wasn’t any dancing.” It’s true that there isn’t much, but looking only for dancing in Dr. and Frau Stahlbaum’s living room misses the glory of what’s there. The attention to detail is astonishing, and no portrayal is delivered without multiple layers of nuance. I especially chuckled at the rendering of the grandparents by Claire Von Enck and David Prottas. Von Enck, who looks young enough to pass as one of the kids, made a fine arthritic granny. And the wonderful ‘entre-scene’ violin solo by Kurt Nikkanen, which has become as much of a tradition in recent years as the ballet itself, is alone almost worth the price of admission.
By Act II, the dancing takes over, led by Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette’s superbly executed Sugarplum Fairy/Cavalier pas de deux. Hyltin provided her typical larger than life portrayal, but Veyette was particularly brilliant in his partnering and execution.
Sara Mearns was technical perfection as Dewdrop (although her smile yielded to tension and dolefulness as the divertissement progressed), with Meagan Mann and Sara Adams sparkling as the lead Flowers. Prior to that, Georgina Pazcoguin and Taylor Stanley danced a fiery Hot Chocolate, Antonio Carmena led Tea with vigor, Daniel Ulbricht was his usual ebullient self leading the Candy Canes, and Lauren Lovette, in her first role since early summer foot surgery, commendably led the Marzipan Shepherdesses.
The only disappointment was Ashley Laracey’s Coffee – she was technically excellent, but her portrayal lacked the sensuality that previous dancers over the years brought to that role. To be fair, however, the past few Coffees I’ve seen have been portrayed similarly, so perhaps there has been a conscious effort to minimize that aspect of a role that Balanchine once stated was intended to awaken sleeping fathers with a “mini-Salome.” If that’s the case, it’s an unfortunate decision.
And then there were the children, all students at NYCB’s affiliated School of American Ballet. By my unofficial count, there are 63 of them in the production (some dancing dual roles), including the three leads. Natalie Glassie and F. Henry Berlin were the precociously sophisticated Marie and Nutcracker/Prince, and Aaron Plous a lovable rogue of a Fritz.
Normally I would not comment on the young dancers who comprised the rest of the cast other than to say they all did an excellent job, which they all did. But one of the little Angels (the youngest of the children) appeared to trip on her floor-length costume and very noticeably fell – hard – to gasps of concern from the audience. This may well have been traumatic for a six or seven year old, particularly on opening night. But this little dancer picked herself up and went right back to position, hardly missing a beat. I have no idea who she is, but she already shows the presence of mind and determination that are essential components of being a ballerina.
Finally, I must note one auspicious debut. Andrew Litton was appointed by Peter Martins to be NYCB’s Music Director in January, 2015, despite his lack of experience conducting for ballet (he is a highly respected orchestra conductor). Based on this performance, his first with the company as Music Director, it was a wise choice. The NYCB Orchestra is already one of the world’s finest orchestras, ballet or otherwise, and Litton fits right in. Under his baton the orchestra played the glorious Tchaikovsky score with the speed and clarity that has been its hallmark. It was scintillating to listen to at every moment, from the crackerjack rendition of the overture to the concluding pas de deux – and perhaps reached a highpoint in its blistering accounting of Waltz of the Flowers, which left me out of breath just listening to it and watching the dancers’ efforts to keep up (which, these being NYCB dancers, they did). It was a marvelous demonstration of the NYCB Orchestra at its best. Litton bears a superficial physical resemblance to Robert Irving, NYCB’s celebrated Music Director from 1958 to 1989. If he has any fraction of the success Irving had, his will be a successful stewardship indeed. And the stable of superb NYCB conductors now appears as deep as its roster of dancers.
With the departure of American Ballet Theatre’s production of Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker to warmer and less competitive California climes, NYCB’s production is now the only game in town from a major New York ballet company. That, however, shouldn’t be the reason to see it. That it provides memories that last a lifetime is.
George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” runs through January 3, 2016.