Once upon a time, there was only one American “Nutcracker”. That was in 1944, when William Christensen produced his version for San Francisco Ballet. Now there are hundreds, and they can be found in every corner of the country. When he first thought of choreographing the ballet, Christensen pressed George Balanchine for his memories of dancing “Nutcracker” in Russia when he was a student and young professional dancer. The scene in Act I with the growing Christmas tree was one of the memories that Balanchine communicated in great detail. Christensen’s version has disappeared from the San Francisco Ballet repertory but its likeness lives on in fantastical detail with City Ballet’s 1954 version of the classic choreographed by Balanchine. In that version, the staging for the growing tree is as perfect a reflection of the trumpeting, cymbal crashing, and rising tide of music as you might wish for. When it’s over, the applause is not for the dancing because there has been none. It’s for the magic of the staging, which briefly eclipses everything as a prelude to the battle of Clara and the supersized mice.
Once that scene reaches a conclusion, the towering tree becomes the backdrop for the exquisite business of the warring soldiers and mice. The stage empties and fills, the forces dissolve and regroup with a beautiful sense of ordered chaos. You can see exactly who’s up and who’s down. The children’s cast is quite perfect. They are real dancers too, only shorter. All of it gives you a clear sense of Balanchine’s unique accomplishment in moving dancers around with a profoundly satisfying, and at times breathtaking sense of style, texture, purpose, and musicality. I have always admired the music for Act I. It is the best and most marvelously varied fifty minutes of continuous theater music for ballet anywhere.
That sense of perfect continuity is interrupted in this production with the addition of the orphaned “Sleeping Beauty” music inserted before the battle gets underway. You miss the mystery of the sparse orchestration, harp glissandi, and colorful winds flowing directly into the music that introduces the mice at the conclusion of bedtime scene. Even so the added music is well chosen. It has echoes of the original Christmas tree theme played in the obbligato violin part. It fits, but not quite perfectly.
“Waltz of the Snow Flakes” loads on the spectacle in an oversized dose of Balanchine’s ingenious large scale choreography. The corps de ballet is in constant flux, building large ensembles which then suddenly disperse, emptying the stage. The scene is filled with urgent running, clever movement patterns, and unexpected moments where the movement suddenly reverses direction. The snow falls furiously. More than any other production I have seen, Balanchine’s gives you the sense that the snowflake dancers are the snow storm, not just decorative participants behind a make-believe veil. The evening I saw the production, a dancer dropped one of her pompoms. By the end of the scene, it had been completely buried on stage.
The candied, pastel colors of Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s expansive, cutout-patterned sets do much to translate the real world of Act I into the pure fantasy of Act II. Balanchine’s idea was that the set should place you inside an enormous candy box. He repositions the Sugar Plum music from the Grand Pas de Deux as part of the opening flourish. Ashley Bouder made that moment genial and comfortable rather than an essay in overcoming complex steps and rarified choreography. Her cavalier was Amar Ramasar. His part leaves out the Tarantella altogether, which was a disappointment, and his dancing seemed pale in this performance, though he broadcasts a genuine pleasure and generosity as a partner. With the “Tarantella” missing and the Sugar Plum variation moved the top of Act II, the Grand Pas de Deux loses some of its focus and importance. It’s a tactic used in many other productions but it always comes across as something of a diminishment, no matter the intention to distribute Act II’s big dancing more equitably.
Of the diversions that make up Act II, “Coffee” (the faux Arabian music) danced spectacularly by Faye Arthurs, was truly transporting. While the other variations are well populated, some with a crew of back up dancers, “Coffee” is set for a solo dancer. The movement is a heady mix of fleeting classical gestures and old fashioned orientalism that could easily have been drawn from the early days of Ballets Russes spectacles like Scheherazade. Arthurs slithers on her stomach toward the audience at the conclusion, she lifts her leg impossibly above her shoulders, and, like a contortionist, dangles it over her head. She captured all the sultry detachment that the music has to offer. It was a perfect melding of the dancer and the dance that avoided cliché and made you hold your breath with rapt attention.
Also making an exuberant impression in Act II was the high-flying Daniel Ulbricht in “Candy Canes”. With buoyant jumps and clever tricks, he makes a different kind of statement in this variation where the music usually leads in the direction of staged folk dance. It is a version of the choreography that Balanchine himself had first danced in St. Petersburg. He was accompanied by a backup ensemble of student dancers. Soloist Zachary Catazaro also was stylish and exceptional in the Spanish themed “Hot Chocolate”.
Act II begins with all of the act’s participants on stage. There is a fleet of angels who glide synchronously (like skaters) in floor length dresses that cover their feet. The corps de ballet from “Waltz of the Flowers” is there, too, assembled like a formal court. The candy box comparison is an apt one. You sense that Balanchine is loading on the memories from St. Petersburg. In the vibrant cast of accomplished student dancers you sense a nostalgic Balanchine, remembering himself as a young dancer at the Mariinsky Theater. “Wait. Watch. See what I’m going do with this candy box of dancers and music.” Sixty years on, it’s still the best crafted, richest, and snowiest version going.
(The reviewed performance took place on Thursday December 5, 2013. The City Ballet orchestra is excellent. The conductor was Andrew Sill. The violin soloist in the “Sleeping Beauty” entr’act music was Kurt Nikkanen. For several years, the performances have been named and trademarked as “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker”. The costumes by Karinska and the sets by Ter-Arutunian date from a 1964 revival. New York City Ballet performs Nutcracker each season beginning in late November and finishing in early January )