The Nutcracker’ Chronicles: In ABT Version, A Master Shows His Hand
December 31st, 2010
The New York Times, By ALASTAIR MACAULAY
Throughout Act One of Alexei Ratmansky’s new production of “The Nutcracker” for American Ballet Theater, you’re in the hands of a master. I can question perhaps 10 moments in it (the fight between soldiers and mice is relatively weak, for instance, while the concluding pose for the Snowflakes, lying back onto the floor as if exhausted, is a puzzle), and those incidental problems hardly matter. His version of the story is completely original in feeling, the whole tone of the drama frequently changes as you watch, and I have seen no work by this choreographer that better shows his powers.
The triumphant climax is the Waltz of the Snowflakes. This – perhaps the most brilliantly imaginative passage in Tchaikovsky’s entire score – has already inspired two superb treatments well known in New York, George Balanchine’s (at New York City Ballet) and Mark Morris’s (“The Hard Nut). On my recent transAmerican “Nutcracker” travels, I was also compelled by the imagination and complexity of Ib Andersen’s treatment at Ballet Arizona (Phoenix). Yet Mr. Ratmansky’s, astonishingly, makes you hear whole new layers in the music; and no vision of these Snowflakes in my experience has ever made them more changeful, more dramatic, more potently mythic.
Tchaikovsky twice introduces a wordless chorus of boys’ or womens’ voices, and yet no other “Nutcracker” I know has made these episodes show any particular change of tone. For Mr. Ratmansky, these choruses are the sweetly perilous call of the fatal Erl King, luring children lusciously to their deaths. As they sound (taped, alas), his Snowflakes change manner, surround the story’s child hero and heroine, and become sirens. But this is only one of the many facets they show in this superb scene.
Richard Hudson has designed Act One – enthrallingly – in a restricted palette of largely muted colors. He makes Act Two, by contrast, a world of bright and often boldly juxtaposed colors. But he has two obvious errors here. One: he makes both the Land of Sweets and its dream-home sequel flatly two-dimensional architectural sketches when the drama suggests something far more real and lived. The other: the four male bees that pollinate the 16 female flowers in the Waltz have the wrong kind of cartoon headgear. That Waltz shows, remarkably, Mr. Ratmansky’s formal skills in organization: during much of its course, two, three, or four different things are occurring. But neither there nor in the earlier Sweet dances has he given us a particularly generous or sensuous world. The grand pas de deux for hero and heroine is full of expansive feeling, but it is a private scene, cut off from all that has preceded it and therefore not arriving as a climax.
I have now seen three casts. Only the first, led by Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg, fully realized Mr. Ratmansky’s wonderfully double drama, looking inward and outward at the same time, and made the most of the many choreographic details. Veronika Part had luxuriantly individual solo moments, and occasionally – especially at the close of the adagio – rose gorgeously to the role’s striking dance contrasts. But it is taxing for any man to partner this tall, broad-shouldered dancer in acrobatic lifts and catches; the valiant Marcelo Gomes did so admirably, but seemed winded when it came to his own solos. Xiomara Reyes and, especially, Herman Cornejo danced well but without showing the extraordinary touches of self-consciousness that pierce this version of the story.
This “Nutcracker” is already engrossing throughout; and many supporting performances (not least the child mouse) are so fully realized that they are the best sign of Mr. Ratmansky’s skill as a director. I hope American Ballet Theater revives it next year, and that conditions will allow Mr. Hudson, Mr. Ratmansky and all their casts to deepen and enlarge Act Two. I can imagine it working excellently on television and DVD. This is a staging where you hang on faces, and the features of every face show how fully these dancers inhabit Mr. Ratmansky’s stage world.