New York City Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
December 7, 2021
George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker”
The last time I visited New York City Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ was five years ago. With nothing really new left to say, I reviewed that year’s performance using “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” as a template. I thought of doing the same thing this year, but decided, at least with respect to poetic templates, that you can’t go home again.
But with NYCB’s production of George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’, you can go home again.
As is well known, last year’s Nutcracker season was cancelled because of that sinister Pandemic Grinch. This year – well, there are still some Covid-related issues that remain, but in the overall scheme of things, they pale in comparison to the memories this production makes, or rekindles. I’ll briefly address those issues first.
I’d heard through the grapevine that because of continuing Covid issues it was decided – either out of necessity or to be prudent – that the youngest students from NYCB’s affiliated School of American Ballet who are usually used in various capacities (partygoers, soldiers, angels) were replaced by older children. Well, many of those young dancers did look older compared to what had been the norm, but except for the tallest of them, who really seemed close to the adults in height, what impact there may have been wasn’t such a big deal. I did sense a change in the apparent spontaneity and charm of the children in the party scene in Act I, and more of a sense of regimentation than I recall from prior years (and on older young dancer boys those party hats made them look like Shriners at a convention), but most audience-members wouldn’t notice. And, not related to the production itself, there were far fewer young children in the audience than I’d seen previously, which in prior years added to the celebratory atmosphere. This may have been a consequence of high ticket prices, it being a Tuesday night, or, most likely, because of pandemic and vaccination-related concerns, but it was unfortunate.
However, in terms of the production itself, in the end none of these relatively minor observations matter. This production of George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ – the original of which premiered with NYCB in 1954 – is what it is because, no matter how many fine incarnations of “The Nutcracker” are out there, it was and remains the gold standard, the one against which others are measured, and the one everyone wants to see at least once; and if seen at least once, wants to regularly revisit. No matter how young you are, or how old you’ve become, it’s still the essential Nutcracker experience.
In addition to the innate production quality itself, Tuesday night’s performance crackled with highlights at all levels; far too many for this year’s production to be dismissed as not up to par. Aside from the lead young dancers – Athena Shevorykin as Marie/The Princess and Reed Oimet as The Nutcracker/Prince (both of whom were very accomplished and, maybe a consequence of being a bit older, looked more polished than in prior years), and the appropriately hyperactive Lucas Contreras as Fritz – each of the performances by leading and featured ballerinas were by themselves cause for celebration. The danseurs here have less to do, but two particularly excelled.
I’d not previously seen Indiana Woodward’s Sugar Plum Fairy, but I doubt whether any prior performance could have been better. Soon after she joined the company (at the end of 2012), I commented on her endearing presence coupled with a growing technical facility and feisty attack. Recently promoted to Principal, she has matured into a commanding and proficient ballerina – and she still has that feisty attack and that endearing warmth: perfect qualities for a Sugar Plum Fairy. To those qualities she added the essential gentle regality that the role requires. Her performance here ranks with the best of those I’ve seen: always in charge, but always pleasingly engaged, and with mime as clear as crystal. And her timing – the way she extends phrases (effectively controlling time) in Balanchine’s choreography without altering it – was masterful.
Her Cavalier, Anthony Huxley, displayed his usual brilliance on his own, and was a satisfactory partner, but there was one near disastrous glitch: in the second of Balanchine’s wicked “wrist-catches” in the opening segment of the concluding pas de deux, it looked like Huxley couldn’t reach Woodward’s wrist as she came out of a pirouette, and she had to lean down toward him so he could grab it (or just tilted down because her wrist wasn’t grabbed at the appropriate point). [I heard some in the audience gasp.] He saved it – but one second later it might have been calamitous.
The role of Dewdrop is completely different. There’s no issue of nobility; just speed – particularly here, where the tempo appeared unusually fast. Megan Fairchild executed brilliantly, with a continuing explosive attack that’d make the Energizer Bunny look sluggish. As the two lead “Flowers,” Emilie Gerrity did fine work, but anyone who mirrors Mira Nadon will look less impressive by comparison. Even without trying, Nadon dominates just by being on stage.
Emma Von Enck has emerged post-pandemic as a member of the corps who is clearly on the way up. Even with the blistering fast tempo (it sounds great, but moving one’s legs at that speed, constantly, is a challenge even for NYCB ballerinas more accustomed to speed than those with other companies), Von Enck nailed every beat. Other performances were superb, but this level of accomplishment dazzled with both current accomplishment and future promise.
Emily Kikta danced an appropriately sultry Coffee, and that was several degrees more sensual than I’d previously seen from her in this role; and in Hot Chocolate, Ashley Hod executed flawlessly and gave the role the Spanish flair it needed. [Her partner, Christopher Grant, looked capable but undistinguished in his role – until he delivered perfect double tours ending on one knee to close the variation.]
Of the featured danseur roles, Roman Mejia was brilliant in his role debut as the lead Candy Cane. He made jumping in and out of his hoop (like jumping rope on steroids) look relatively easy. And Sebastian Villarini-Velez’s huge 190 degree split jumps in Tea brought gasps from the audience.[His two cohorts, Baily Jones and Gabriella Domini did fine work as well, and, Domini, relatively new to the company, had a glowing, joyful face that could have lit the scene on its own.] Harrison Coll, who I saw for the first time as Drosselmeier, was more than adequate, but does not yet have the stage presence, and the level of wizardry, that Robert LaFosse has honed over the years.
And a nod to those I usually forget to acknowledge. The NYCB corps was particularly impressive this year – of course in the treacherous ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ (not a slip or slide among them), but also in ensemble work. Further, the New York City Ballet Orchestra is one of the best in the world (I’m inclined to write “the best,” but I haven’t seen/heard them all). Even when the conducting, here by Clotilde Otranto, appeared to be unusually fast-paced even for normally supersonic NYCB, the sound is crystalline. And Kurt Nikkanen’s violin solo in between scenes in Act I is a warm and sweet introduction to a dream that, impossibly, seems to get better with age each year.
But having gone through all these highlights, in the end they alone are not what makes George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ work. It’s the overall magic that emanates of course from Balanchine’s concept and choreography and the NYCB dancers’ execution, but also from the iconic Tchaikovsky score, the spectacular Rouben Ter-Arutunian sets, Karinska’s costumes, and the lighting (originally by Ronald Bates; now by Mark Stanley) that make it the Event, and the Experience, that it is.
As I age, I tend to prefer versions of “The Nutcracker” that are more contemporary, and particularly those (like Mikhail Baryshnikov’s former and Alexei Ratmansky’s current versions for American Ballet Theatre) that explore coming-of-age issues and touch the heart as well as the eyes (this production does too, but far more subtly and without emphasis). That being said, it’s good to be able to come home again to find, and to re-experience, the memories as they always were; and to watch the young Princess and Prince fly off to a future that never was, but that always will be.