New Jersey Ballet
Mayo Performing Arts Center
Morristown, New Jersey
December 15, 2023
I didn’t plan to see a Nutcracker performance this year – I needed the break, both from writing and from seeing Nutcracker for the umpteenth time. But given the opportunity, I realized that somehow I hadn’t previously seen New Jersey Ballet’s Nutcracker, so I decided to attend the opening performance of the company’s two-week run at MPAC in Morristown.
NJB’s production has been around for awhile. New York City Ballet’s legendary Edward Villella (who was, and continues to be, an NJB Artistic Advisor) performed as the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier in NJB’s first Nutcracker fifty-two years ago. I’m sure it’s been tinkered with over the years since then, but it looks as if this essentially is the original production, updated with contemporary effects.
Although I have relatively minor criticisms, some of which I’ll mention below, with respect to this or any other Nutcracker they’re somewhat irrelevant. NJB’s production is charming, the divertissements in Act 2 are very well done, and overall it’s thoroughly entertaining. Most importantly, the full-house audience very obviously loved every minute of it.
NJB’s Nutcracker is basically similar to versions of it that are true to the original adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (or, more accurately, the adaptation of the adaptation of Hoffmann’s story by Alexandre Dumas called “The Story of a Nutcracker”). Marius Petipa, assisted by Lev Ivanov, choreographed the initial ballet version to the celebrated Tchaikovsky score for the Imperial Russian Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet), which premiered at the Imperial Theater in Saint Petersburg in 1892.
The Nutcracker has had innumerable revisions, or complete reimaginings, since then, with a seemingly endless parade of choreographers taking a crack at it. Its U.S. premiere was in 1944 with the San Francisco Ballet, choreographed by its then Artistic Director Willem Christensen. [That production, occasionally updated, is now presented by the company that Christensen later founded, Ballet West.] In 1954, George Balanchine choreographed his version for New York City Ballet. To the extent there’s a gold standard of Nutcrackers that are faithful to the original, it’s that NYCB production: George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ (as the piece has been officially titled since Balanchine’s death) is performed by companies world-wide, in addition to its continuing NYCB month-long annual presentation.
This NJB production is akin to its NYCB cousin, but different in significant ways beyond the absence of the extravagant bells and whistles that behemoth companies can afford (and which make NYCB’s production the spectacle it is). Obviously the choreography is different, but since both are derived from the Petipa/ Ivanov original (or from reasonably faithful revisions to it) there’s a surface similarity. Also different, and pertinent, are stage dimensions and technical accoutrements. Nevertheless NJB’s production, particularly its dance sequences, is sufficiently challenging for its dancers and entertaining to its viewers. The result is a Nutcracker that is enchanting to anyone who is neither a grinch nor an overthinking critic.
At the performance I attended this Nutcracker also had an abundance of fine performances, including (but not limited to) Ilse Kapteyn and Chun Wai Chan’s Sugarplum and Cavalier (Chan, a NYCB Principal Dancer, appeared here as a Guest Artist), Se Hyun Jin and Akira IIdo’s Snow Queen and King; Brian Sevilla’s Trepak, Mother Ginger and the Clowns, and, maybe the evening’s highlight, Risa Mochizuki’s Dew Drop.
Familiarity with the basic story is assumed. Note also that although in several respects I compare certain aspects of this NJB presentation with NYCB’s, that’s only because the latter may be more familiar to audience-goers here than other versions and consequently can serve as a reference point.
In NJB’s production, as is the case in most standard productions, Act 1 is the weak sister to Act 2. That’s because Act 1 is basically plot evolution to which dances are added, while Act 2 is primarily dance. Further fueling the differences between the two Acts is that this NJB production as a whole was choreographed by something of a committee. Specifically, Scenes 1 and 2 of Act 1 were choreographed by Joseph Carow; Scene 3 of Act 1, and all but one dance in Act 2, were choreographed by George Tomal, NJB’s co-founder (with Carolyn Clark). [At the time of its premiere in 1971, Carow was NJB’s Associate Director, and Tomal (who died in 2008) its Resident Choreographer. Both had prior connections with American Ballet Theatre.] Choreography for the “Coffee” divertissement in Act 2 is credited to Eric Trope, currently a company Repertory Coach who is also a freelance choreographer and former member of Miami City Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet (now Philadelphia Ballet).
Translated, this means that with the exception of “Coffee,” the significant dance segments (The Snowflake dance in Scene 3 of Act 1 and the divertissements and Grand Pas de Deux in Act 2) were choreographed by Tomal, and Carow handled the less formal dancing and the story development in Act 1. This may, in part, be why the two Acts are as different in dance quality as they appear to be, even allowing for differences in the nature and substance of the two Acts.
NJB’s Nutcracker starts well. Essentially, the initial brief scene is quite similar to the Balanchine version, except instead of Clara (“Marie” in NYCB’s production) and Fritz looking through the keyhole into the room where the Stahlbaum Christmas Eve festivities will take place, here they’re accompanied by the other children who were brought to the Stahlbaum manse, presumably by their parents. It makes for a nice display.
The children (all of whom are students at NJB’s affiliated New Jersey Ballet School) represent a broader age/size assembly than I can recall seeing in other Nutcracker productions in which children play children’s roles, so much so that I initially thought Clara and Fritz (here played by, respectively, Caroline Morrow and Diego Arpino) were company members. The former had considerably more to do throughout the piece, executed superbly, and already has an engaging stage quality.
At least based on this performance, Fritz, taller and apparently older than the other boys, is portrayed as something of a bully rather than an out-of-control or hyperactive younger brother. But Fritz doing a back-flip, as young Arpino does here, is out of place for an extravagant Christmas Eve party in 19th Century Germany (or anywhere else during that time period).
Then again, the program here doesn’t specify a time period or location – it could be anytime, anywhere; even now. So…go ahead and do that backflip.
More significantly, to my eye Act I has more mime than necessary, particularly the “let’s dance” mime. It’s annoying when overused (which to me is more than once per scene), as is the case here. And the dance sequences that follow are elementary, and although appropriate for dance students as well as the circumstances, they’re not particularly entertaining to watch unless the viewer’s child is among those on stage. [Curiously, at least to me, the most significant mime in standard versions of the dance, the Nutcracker Prince’s recounting of his battle with the Mouse King and of Clara’s role in it at the beginning of Act 2, doesn’t exist in NJB’s production.]
Further, the transitions from moment to moment to moment that are essential to build the story are somewhat muddy. “Little” details can get lost or were removed for no apparent reason: for example, I didn’t see Drosselmeyer repair the broken Nutcracker. [Apparently, however, that’s this production’s intent – the program doesn’t indicate that the Nutcracker doll was repaired at all, by Drosselmeyer or anyone else. Rather, it specifies that “The Prince helps Clara tuck the broken Nutcracker into the doll’s bed.”]
Does any of this matter? Only to curmudgeonly critics. And several of the concerns noted above are criticisms that also were made after the original ballet’s premiere. So much for the value of criticism when a ballet is as entertaining and popular as The Nutcracker is.
But there’s another side to this. Some components of the student dances in Scene 1 of Act 2 are unusual (e.g., the dance involving the girls and boys together). And things improve further as Scene 2 of Act 1 progresses: the strobe-like lighting during the battle between the Soldiers and the Mice electrifies the choreography, as do the occasional pyrotechnics. [The lighting design is by Paul Miller.] I don’t know if these were part of the original or added afterward, but the lighting adds a sense of drama, danger and faux reality that the choreography itself lacks (common to most standard productions), and the pyrotechnics add surprise and excitement.
In this production, Drosselmeyer is simply a magician/ toymaker, not a relative or Clara’s godfather. Consequently, his dance with Grandma (the “Grandparents dance” in many standard productions) isn’t as inappropriate as it initially appeared to me to be – particularly since NJB’s production has no Grandfather. [Grandma was played by Rosemary Sabovick-Bleich, now a company Repertory Coach, who I recall from several NJB performances I attended many years ago.] Being a magician /toymaker also makes this Drosselmeyer a distant relative of another character in a ballet derived from an E.T.A. Hoffmann short story, Dr Coppélius in Coppélia (which I understand is in NJB’s repertoire), and similarly connects Act 1’s Doll and Soldier (played by Catherine Whiting and Vinicius Freire respectively) with the doll Coppélia.
Drosselmeyer here is nicely played by Raynor Rubel, a relatively new member of the company; he’s the most animated adult castmember in Scenes 1 and 2.
After the battle is won, the ballet proceeds to Scene 3, where the significant dance components of the ballet begin. Given the constraints of size and capability, the scene is very nicely done in all respects. The human Snowflakes, both adults and children, are led by the Snow Queen and King (danced respectively by Jin and Iido). It’s an impressive display of choreography and execution that brings the festivities to balletic life. Again, it’s not Balanchine, but one can’t expect that; for what it is it’s quite good. After the snowfall, Clara and her Nutcracker Prince leave for their flight to Act 2, carried off by a Swan Sleigh. [Well, why not…]
Act 2 is, essentially, the suite of dances presented after Clara and the Prince arrive in the Kingdom of the Sweets. The divertissements that comprise the bulk of Act 2 are all different choreographically from those in the NYCB production, but perfectly valid and undeniably entertaining – and several are quite interesting.
Following an appearance by young student angels and the Guardian Angel (Raleigh Ledford) the divertissements begin with the “Spanish Dance” (here, as in other productions that prefer to eliminate ethnic references to avoid potentially offending anyone, it’s called “Hot Chocolate”). The dance is lively and upbeat and one of the better examples of it that I’ve seen (too often it’s somewhat perfunctory). But it was also a little strange – like a cross between a standard Nutcracker Spanish Dance and Le Corsair. But it worked – and, recognizing that here this is “Hot Chocolate” rather than a Spanish Dance, its Spanish authenticity isn’t an issue. Eunice Suba and Felipe Valentini executed it commendably.
“Coffee” and “Tea” follow “Hot Chocolate.” Originally called the Arabian Dance, “Coffee” is not quite the seductive dance that it’s frequently portrayed as, but it’s definitely enticing and sensual and, as delivered by Jin and Jonathan Philbert, was one of the program’s highlights. Tea (the Chinese Dance in other productions) was nicely performed by Freire.
“Mirlitons” (“Marzipan” in NYCB’s production) in this production are a trio of dancers. Here they were performed by Alexandra Limeburg, Whiting, and Emily Barrows – unfortunately without the flute-like instruments that the mirliton represents (or that were too tiny for me to see). Trepak (a solo to the more standard “Russian Dance” music) was ably executed by Brian Sevilla – adding a thrilling series of split jumps.
One of the finest dances was Mother Ginger and her Clowns (Polichinelles in NYCB’s version). Bespectacled Mother Ginger (unidentified) is genuinely funny, but the young Clowns steal the scene – and perhaps the ballet as a whole. Comprised of a small army of students at varying levels, with featured solos by Lily Silver and Ella Harvin, the divertissement is a model of individual and ensemble excellence that’s thoroughly entertaining even to a viewer who doesn’t have a child in it.
The “Waltz of the Flowers,” led by Dewdrop, was the dance’s penultimate divertissement, and it was quite well done. Mochizuki’s Dewdrop in particular, was danced superbly. As I’ve observed previously, she’s a tiny dancer, but here she lit up the stage. And, whether intentional or not, the visual contrast between her and the two featured Flowers (Ledford and Lilli Etheredge), who appeared significantly taller, enlivened the dance even more.
Finally, the pas de deux by the Sugar Plum and her Cavalier (Kapteyn and Chan), was the program’s capstone. Each did very fine work. Chan appeared somewhat restricted by the stage size (he had to hold back to avoid flying into the wings), but one not familiar with his NYCB performances wouldn’t have noticed. More importantly, his partnering was nonpareil. [Chan alternates in the role with another Guest Artist, ABT’s Carlos Gonzalez.]
And I must credit the rapid pace of this production propelled – and perhaps even mandated – by the commendably speedy tempi of the New Jersey Symphony, led by its conductor, Constantine Kitsopoulos. In this respect, this too is comparable to the torrid pace usually set by the NYCB Orchestra.
One last observation. As I’ve observed previously, NJB has evolved, and, to my eye, improved significantly since former NYCB Principal Dancer Maria Kowroski assumed the reigns as NJB’s Artistic Director. Although as yet she’s shown no interest in choreographing, this might represent a perfect opportunity to revisit parts of this production – even if only to add some “coming of age” ingredient to the mix (which NYCB’s production does only minimally, but which are admirable components of ABT’s prior production (choreographed by Mikhail Baryshnikov) and its current production (choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky).
Then again, why tamper with success?
Overall, even with the limitations and concerns mentioned (as well as some hiccups that happen in any company – and which NJB’s dancers covered with professional aplomb), this is a fine production. It won’t replace the NYCB spectacle, but for those who can’t travel into the city or for whom NYCB’s ticket prices are too steep, or just for a pleasant holiday season outing, NJB’s Nutcracker is well-worth seeing. Performances continue at MPAC through December 27.