Monday, December 21, 2009

Beyond The Sugar Plum Fairy-Three Nutcracker Performances

New York City Ballet-George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
Lincoln Center, New York City, NY
December 9, 2009

The Washington Ballet-Septime Webre's The Nutcracker
Warner Theatre, Washington, D.C.
December 11, 2009

Grand Rapids Ballet Company-Gordon Pierce Schmidt's The Nutcracker
DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids, MI
December 20, 2009

The holiday season is full of combinations: Santa and reindeer, tinsel and ornaments, and an excess of food and wine. Children and The Nutcracker are yet another inseparable mixture. Every December, dressed in Christmas finery, they experience the festive and colorful story of Clara and her beloved Nutcracker. For some, the trip to this particular ballet is part of their annual winter traditions, akin to making snowmen and shaking gifts under a well-lit, well-decorated tree. But, there is one group of children for whom The Nutcracker is something else entirely. For them, it embodies hopes, dreams and expectations. These are the young people cast every year in the scores of Nutcracker productions. They see the yuletide celebration from a different perspective: from the rehearsal hall, from the wings and onstage. It is one of the only opportunities for these 'ballet hopefuls' to share the stage with professional company dancers. And, for many of them, imagining their future selves performing a most-coveted role is big part of the experience.

The most desired role is not necessarily the central one. Yes, some little girls picture themselves as Clara or the Sugar Plum Fairy but others may be drawn to one of the distinctive and compelling characters in their respective production. A less idolized part may in fact have better choreography, higher technical demands and garner more admiration. I would guess that the children in the three Nutcrackers I saw this season (New York City Ballet, Washington Ballet and Grand Rapids Ballet), are likely as drawn to the outstanding performances below as they are to the main characters.

The greatest inspirations in The New York City Ballet's Nutcracker were the three featured performers in the Waltz of the Flowers. The Dewdrop (Ana Sophia Scheller), with the help of the two chief flowers (Kathryn Morgan and Brittany Pollack), led a dozen corps members through this lengthy and extremely well-known variation. It is hard to make the Waltz of the Flowers unique and fresh. Most versions are mundane copies of each other; inventiveness not being their strong suit. Enter the NYCB's Waltz. The awe in it comes from Balanchine's technique and choreography, exemplified by Scheller, Morgan and Pollack. They are masters of Balanchinian movement and are able to transmit it flawlessly through performance. Two specific steps shone in these solos: the 45 degree arabesques and the demi-pointe turns. 135 degree legs and arabesque splits have become so common nowadays that they border on boring. To the detriment of artistry, the current ballet climate has come to celebrate and encourage these circus tricks. Thankfully in this Nutcracker, one can still see the simple beauty, clarity and elegance of an exquisite low arabesque. It is so unpretentious, so refreshing and so memorable. In addition, Balanchine infused the dances for the Dewdrop and two lead flowers with ample chaines, piques and en dedans turns on demi-pointe. Balanchine's blending of demi-pointe and full pointe work illustrates a broader set of choreographic options, utilizing the foot's full range of motion. Aside from that, these demi-pointe turns were faster, cleaner and more impressive than many turning sequences on full pointe.

The Washington Ballet's Nutcracker celebrates a regional focus with a number of different characters. In this unique version of the traditional story, there were two standout performances. First was the Frontiersman, danced brilliantly by Brooklyn Mack. His solo, set to the Trepak music, was brimming with the most inventive, technically challenging jumps that I have ever seen. It was a small part of the overall evening, yet, it was the most virtuosic and had the biggest wow factor. Second was the corps de ballet, which was comprised mostly of the Studio Company, plus a couple of extra dancers, who I assume were senior students at the Washington Ballet School. With this mid-size company, these 'corps dancers' had to perform much more than a typical corps de ballet; they were onstage constantly. And, when they were onstage, they were not set dressing, Septime Webre has created much choreography for them and it was challenging. Most of them were party guests, snowflakes, butterflies, cardinals and flowers. I am amazed that the Studio Company were still standing at the end of the ballet; they had some impressive endurance skills to be sure! Without a doubt, these dancers danced more than anyone, and their contribution was indispensable.

The breathtaking snow scene of the Grand Rapids Ballet's Nutcracker was the highlight of this enchanting Mid-Western rendition. The Snow Queen, Laura Schultz, and the Wind King, Stephen Sanford, were born to dance together. This section was packed with overhead lifts, well-prepared by Schultz and well-executed by Sanford. Not once did any of their partnering look awkward, uneasy or precarious. They were truly a royal pair. Schultz also exhibited the most accurate textbook attitude derriere as the Snow Queen. A correct attitude requires that the thigh and knee be higher than the foot-when did the ballet community forget this? The snowflakes were danced primarily by the senior professional trainees from the School of the Grand Rapids Ballet Company and they were on par with any set of corps dancers. In addition, the Grand Rapids' Nutcracker had a live choir from Forest Hills Northern High School providing the beautiful vocal score of the snow scene. The entire vignette was picturesque perfection.

It is hard to compare with the inherent star power of roles like Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier. But the abovementioned high points reveal that there is much more to The Nutcracker than those three. I think any of the children onstage at New York City Ballet, Washington Ballet and Grand Rapids Ballet would be thrilled to one day portray any of these characters in a professional Nutcracker production. They will then be providing the next generation with their inspiration.

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