David Koch Theatre, New York, NY; December 10, 2013 (New York City Ballet)

Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, NY; December 13, 2013 (American Ballet Theatre)

Jerry Hochman

In New York City, “The Nutcracker” is a tale of two ballets, with different versions being presented by its two major resident ballet companies:  New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.  Both are derived from the Alexandre Dumas pere sanitized adaptation of ETA Hoffmann’s darkly brooding 1819 story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” but each takes a considerably different approach.

Rebecca Krohn in "George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'" Photo © Paul Kolnik

Rebecca Krohn in “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker'”
Photo © Paul Kolnik

“George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker,” NYCB’s holiday offering, is the iconic production. Created in 1954, “The Nutcracker” was not the first American incarnation of the ballet, but it is the indisputable king of Nutcracker ballets, the glorious production that made “The Nutcracker,” in virtually any form, a must-see event presented by ballet companies of all shapes and sizes, and one that provides these companies with an annual dose of financial adrenaline. ABT’s “Nutcracker,” created by its Artist-in-Residence Alexei Ratmansky in 2010, is less familiar to ballet audiences, and has annoying flaws. But this Nutcracker wears its heart on its sleeve, and what it lacks in spectacle, it makes up for in warmth.

The story is common to all ‘standard’ Nutcracker ballets, and the Balanchine version is both refined and sugary. The patrician Stahlbaum family hosts a Christmas Eve gathering for its equally well-bred invitees and their children. Herr Drosselmeyer, the beloved but eccentric godfather of the Stahlbaum children, arrives soon after, with his nephew in tow. Drosselmeyer brings with him entertainment in the form of oversized mechanical dolls, an air of good-hearted mystery, and, most importantly, gifts. He presents Marie, the Stahlbaums’ daughter, with a nutcracker, which Marie’s younger brother Fritz promptly breaks.

When the party ends and the guests depart, Marie decamps from her bedroom to the ‘great room’ in the Stahlbaums’ manse, falls asleep holding the nutcracker that Drosselmeyer repaired, and dreams of being rescued from marauding mice by her nutcracker and his brigade of boy soldiers. After the child-sized nutcracker, with Marie’s help, vanquishes the mouse king, he morphs into a Little Prince, who happens to look exactly like Drosselmeyer’s nephew. Marie’s dream then takes them to a snowflake winter wonderland, from which they eventually are transported to the Land of the Sweets, where they’re greeted by the Sugarplum Fairy and entertained by visiting dancers. When the entertainment ends, a reindeer sleigh lifts Marie and her Little Prince away skyward, amid a sea of goodbye waves.

But in this version the story is not nearly as important as the production. Over the years “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’” has been honed to perfection: not a step is out of place or production value unexploited. It’s a visual feast. The Christmas Eve party scene in Act I is particularly realistic and nuanced. All the actions ring true, from the arrival of the friends and children, to the interaction between each cast member – including the brief and underplayed, but critical, visualization of Marie’s attraction to Drosselmeyer’s nephew.

The transition from this reality to Marie’s fantasy is seamless – and beautiful. There’s the celebrated magical growing Christmas Tree, and the equally celebrated and magical Snowflake dance. Befitting its roots in the original1892 Petipa/Ivanov production, Act II is essentially a celebration in a fantasy setting, but instead of a prince’s palace, here there’s the Land of the Sweets – the ballets Fantasyland. The visiting dignitaries (Marie and the Little Prince) are treated to a series of divertissements, and then are sent on their way. In the process, Balanchine creates highly entertaining and complex dances, and more memorable images – like the Sugarplum Fairy balancing en pointe in arabesque and being moved as if by invisible force across the back of the stage. It is a breathtaking production that looks both spectacular and intimate at the same time, like a sequence of snow globes come to life. Everything works.

The Ratmansky version is in line with those productions that that are circular rather than linear – eventually, the story returns to its ‘real’ setting, with the Stahlbaum’s daughter in some way changed by the dream. In these versions, the daughter is usually older than the little girl in the Balanchine version (she’s often played by a young-looking ballerina – as in a prior ABT production created by Mikhail Baryshnikov, which is still available on DVD), and the dream is no longer a journey that replicates a child’s candyland fantasy; the dream is a peek at imminent maturity.

Mr. Ratmansky takes this approach one step further. Although the dream is always Clara’s dream, here the audience sees the dream through Clara’s young eyes.  The princess that she sees in her dream, and that the audience sees, is not her dream of some imaginary princess or regal fairy, it’s her dream of herself as the grown-up princess. Consequently, Princess Clara and her Nutcracker Prince are childlike in certain ways – because Clara hasn’t yet experienced being an adult and can only project childlike behavior on her grown-up imagines of herself and her would-be prince.  And instead of watching the dream unfold from an emotional distance, the audience experiences Clara’s dream with her:  when the Princess and Prince in her dream magically join Clara and her Nutcracker Boy as characters on stage, and the two couples briefly dance in tandem to deeply romantic portions of the Tchaikovsky score that seem to have been composed for this purpose, the ballet steals your heart.

From the beginning, Mr. Ratmansky ratchets the ballet as spectacle down a notch, and adds considerable good-hearted humor. The appearance of the mice in the initial ‘kitchen’ scene is hilarious – but it also provides a significant connection to, and explanation for, the images of mice in Clara’s dream. And the Stahlbaum family is not nearly as genteel as in the Balanchine production – they’re Dickensonian middle class neighbors down the street: Mr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum rather than Dr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum in the Balanchine version. They’re the good-hearted Cratchit family after Ebenezer loosened the purse strings; or the family that inherited the business after Scrooge ultimately joined Marley.

But much of the first act is, in parts, awkward or worse, and it is troubling that, apparently, no modifications have been made since the ballet’s opening performances. Among other poor choices, having the children gathered in the Stahlbaum home throw temper tantrums in unison is wrong – unless they’re supposed to act as a group, like when they’re dancing, children act on their own or follow another child’s lead. Here the action looks forced and artificial. The transition from reality to dream is visually awkward:  for example, the Christmas Tree grows, but as the dream/transition progresses the audience sees only the edges of that tree, and others, sticking out from the wings. It looks cheap.  Drosselmeyer is a confusing and creepy character, and the nutcracker’s unexplained transition from toy-sized to boy-sized and back begs clarification.  And the Dance of the Snowflakes is needlessly scary (although as I’ve observed previously, once one gets used to it it looks appropriate for a blizzard, which is consistent with the score, and the last images of the snowflakes whirling randomly as if being buffeted by wind, and then collapsing to the ground like ‘real’ snowflakes, is brilliant).

Choreographically, the Ratmansky Nutcracker is not without flaws either, and it doesn’t dazzle the way Balanchine’s does. But Mr. Ratmansky’s dances are little stories, with dancers who are characters rather than moving images.  Indeed, except for his invention of the ‘Nutcracker Sisters’ (which creates a story-line that isn’t developed and is, at best, uninterestingly choreographed), the choreography is as much, if not more, fun to watch than Balanchine’s. Mr. Ratmansky’s choreography for Harlequin and Columbine in Act I, his Arabian Dance (once adjusting to the absence of Balanchine’s seductive ‘Coffee’), and particularly his dance for the Flowers and Bees (to music for ‘Dewdrop’ in the NYCB version), are superb. And the climactic pas de deux for the adult Princess Clara and her Prince (to the music created for the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier pas de deux) is a perfect combination of bravura dancing and dancing in character.

In the NYCB performance I saw on Tuesday, Rebecca Krohn and Amar Ramasar led the cast as the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier. Ms. Krohn appeared somewhat understated in her initial appearance in Act II, but danced splendidly in the pas de deux, with Mr. Ramasar’s able partnering. Tiler Peck was magnificent as Dewdrop, and Lauren Lovette provided a wonderfully phrased and nuanced lead Marzipan Shepherdess. Although Savannah Lowery was more efficient and mechanical than seductive in ‘Coffee’, she executed the choreography admirably. Robert La Fosse made a welcome annual return as Drosselmeyer, and Zachary Catazaro and Marika Anderson did fine work as Dr. Stahlbaum and his wife. And the children from the School of American Ballet – led by a spirited Rommie Tomasini as Marie and an accomplished Maximilian Brooking Landegger as Drosselmeyer’s nephew/The Nutcracker – were as well-drilled and flawless as usual. [Young Mr. Landegger has appeared in company performances so frequently that by now he should be dubbed an honorary apprentice.]

Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in "The Nutcracker" Photo © Gene Schiavone

Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes in “The Nutcracker”
Photo © Gene Schiavone

Friday’s ABT performance was its opening night this season, and most of the dancers were production veterans. Veronika Part, Princess Clara in young Clara’s dream, and Marcelo Gomes as her Nutcracker Prince, were flat out fabulous both in their flawless execution and in bubbly, childlike character. Other highlights were Misty Copeland and Craig Salstein as Columbine and Harlequin, Zhong-Jing Fang’s finely-tuned Sugar Plum Fairy (a non-dancing role in this production), Victor Barbee’s injection of bonhomie into Drosselmeyer, Blaine Hoven, Arron Scott, and Mr Salstein’s Russians, and all the participating students from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School – including Duncan McIlwaine as the Nutcracker Boy, and particularly Justin Souriau-Levine, who once again reprised his role as the Little Mouse (a delightful invention) and once again received a well-deserved ovation from the audience. But the role of Young Clara is the glue that holds this production together, and JKO student Adelaide Clauss was stellar. I commented favorably on her performance last year – and this year young Ms. Clauss was better still.

For New York’s major ballet companies, these respective Nutcracker productions represent something of a role reversal. Based on online indications of ticket availability, ABT, which projects itself as world class and its principal dancers as ballet royalty, is struggling to find audiences to fill even the reduced number of Nutcracker performances it is giving this year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. NYCB, which projects itself as New York’s ‘family’ company and its dancers as remarkably talented dancers next door, can’t seem to provide enough Nutcracker performances to fill the demand. Whether this is because the trek to Brooklyn is too arduous, or balletgoers who can only afford to attend one performance naturally gravitate toward the more celebrated and familiar production, or that the Ratmansky version is not quite spectacular-looking enough, is not knowable.

But dissimilar as they are, each is an enchanting production that must be seen and savored, with dancers of the highest quality at all levels. The Balanchine version, which I’ve previously described as plum pudding for the soul, is both charming and awe-inspiring. It’s a Nutcracker for children of all ages to remember with a smile, and to take their children and grandchildren for the Experience. The Ratmansky Nutcracker is one for adults and children to take to their hearts and cherish, and, for some, perhaps to remember or experience vicariously what it was like to be a young girl with a dream. For New Yorkers and visitors able to attend both Nutcracker performances, it is the best of times. And it is the best of times.