Each year I write a piece on The Nutcracker. Sometimes it’s a review of a performance. Two years ago I wrote a story on the ballet’s music and how a particularly invested Los Angeles opera conductor has built an orchestra to provide live music for professional productions by San Luis Obispo Ballet and State Street Ballet, thereby rescuing two companies from the travesty of canned music. Last year’s story was about the four remaining American legacy Nutcracker productions still standing. One of those final four legacy productions, Robert Joffrey’s American inspired Nutcracker has, after 29 years, been replaced by a new version choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. It is in previews in lowa City before opening later this month in Chicago. A friend and respected former professional dancer saw the opening and said that, though the performance is stunning in its theatrical value, much about it is a disappointment. For me the loss of Robert Joffrey’s version closes the door on a master of an American classical style. The institutional memory for his unique contribution to American ballet will now have no home in a company and repertory that carries his name. In America , we seem to regularly throw away all the wrong things.
I recently went to see Los Angeles Ballet’s Nutcracker again, a mostly dreary, rote reenactment that is performed to taped music and too often looks like a student production dressed up with a handful of standout dancers. Excellent this season were the three men dancing the Trepak (especially Tigran Sargsyan), Julie Cinquemani in the Arabian diversion, and Allyssa Bross as the soloist in Waltz of the Flowers. The whole production seems to have simply worn down over its ten year history. Waltz of the Snow Flakes hasn’t nearly enough dancers (or snow) in it to realize the fantasy, there is some out of place bathos in the comedy for the introductory scene at the top of Act II, and too often, important music goes unnoticed. Perfunctory performances by Los Angeles Ballet Artistic Director Colleen Neary and Adam Lüders (a former Royal Danish Ballet dancer) as the Staulbaums are at the center of a posey, enervated first act that drags even the children’s performances down with them. The one relief is child dancer Sarah Anne Perel as Clara, who is filled with light, and soldiers on with an energy that deserves better company.
Set in Los Angeles circa 1912, the staging and designs do little to make you feel as if you are indeed in the City of Angeles. Far more genuine and geographically secure is the San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker set in that city at the turn of the century. The production is aglow with architectural emblems of the City by the Bay infused with an honesty of purpose and accomplished, natural classical dancing. In this production, the lights come up on a Christmas greeting stenciled across the curtain: “Compliments of the Season, the old, old greeting, kind and true”. The phrase was lifted from a Christmas advertisement from a turn of the century cigar manufacturer in New York. They manage to live up to the sentiments though, and that is the important part.
Nutcracker comes at the end of Tchaikovsky’s opus of original classical ballets. Roughly 15 years separate his first big ballet, Swan Lake (1877), and this one. It is something of an experiment in its structure and purpose; that is, as well as being a narrative ballet it also seeks to find a place for performances for dancers of all levels. It is a well disguised pedagogical experiment that avoids delivering its didactic purpose with a heavy hand. Act I also contains the best 50 minutes of music for integrated theater and dance anywhere in ballet. The beauty of the overture, dovetailed scenes, and continuous music that regularly shift meter, color, and effect remains an untouchable achievement for music in the ballet world. It is pure genius. An average choreographer can make Act II look good, but it takes someone special to measure up to the infinite possibilities of the first act and come out of it having found the measure of everything in it.
Looking ahead, performances of The Nutcracker by American Ballet Theatre open this week at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. You can head down there for a dose of big time ballet as it was meant to be seen: cast of thousands, real music, genuine stars. It will snow. Hard. Be prepared for some silly looking stuff with the men in Waltz of the Flowers dressed up like bees at a black tie cocktail party! Who knows, it may transport you beyond the crushing realities of the post-election season. But I doubt it. Ain’t nuthin’ gonna fix that mess.