How the Sugarplum Fairy Presides Depends on the ‘Nutcracker’ Narrative

November 26, 2010
New York Times
Alastair Macaulay

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Tradition in America has it that performances of “The Nutcracker” begin only after Thanksgiving. Not so, however, for the two productions this year with which I’ve begun a sampling of the nation’s “Nutcrackers.” They also demonstrate two quite separate versions of the ballet’s story.

So here’s a warning to people seeing “The Nutcracker” for the first time: don’t do advance homework on the tale on, say, Wikipedia, because the production you’re going to will probably have a completely different narrative.

And here’s a caveat for those with a good memory for music: don’t expect the version of Tchaikovsky’s score you hear in the theater to be the same as the complete one you can buy on CD. Most productions feature cuts, some have reorderings, and a few (notably Balanchine’s) include at least one interpolation from elsewhere.

Of the first two on my “Nutcracker Marathon” tour, which will keep me busy up till and including New Year’s Eve, the Joffrey Ballet’s production is closer to the story told in the 1892 St. Petersburg original. The Nutcracker turns into a prince and travels with little Clara, who has helped him to defeat the Mouse King, through the Realm of Snow to the Realm of Sweets. There the Sugarplum Fairy presides in benign glory and rewards Clara with a suite of dances. (In the grand adagio for the Sugarplum Fairy and in her solo variation, this production even has some of the 1892 choreography by Lev Ivanov.)

I saw the opening night of this year’s Joffrey revival at the Kennedy Center in Washington on the evening before Thanksgiving. It plays there through Sunday, then reopens for two weeks next month in the company’s home city, Chicago.

I caught “The Great Russian Nutcracker” at — of all places — the Eisenhower Hall Theater in West Point, N.Y. (It tours America, largely in one-night or one-afternoon stands, chiefly away from the big ballet metropolises.) The audience at the Nov. 10 matinee numbered between 2,000 and 3,000, about 10 percent of whom were Army cadets in their marvelous gray uniforms. (Impossible not to want them onstage, certainly during the ballet’s battle against the mice.) And as memorable as anything in the production was the view from the balcony in the theater’s foyer, a vast panorama of the Hudson at the most majestic curve in its valley.

This production, presented by the Moscow Ballet, belongs to the quite different line of thought that was initiated in Soviet Russia about this work. It’s about the growth of love. Once Clara — no, Masha, sorry — has helped the Nutcracker, and they’ve defeated the mice, he’s no sooner transformed into a Prince than they dance one pas de deux. And then in full adult maturity (i.e., a tutu for her and full ballet-cavalier apparel for him), they return at the climax of Act II to dance the music originally meant for the Sugarplum and her swain.

There are things worth resisting in each version. The Joffrey’s (conceived and directed by Robert Joffrey not long before his death in 1988, with choreography by Gerald Arpino for the big Waltzes for Snowflakes and Flowers and by George Verdak and Scott Barnard elsewhere) involves more tinkering with Tchaikovsky’s music. Though Tchaikovsky’s Act I is the single most seamless achievement in all the ballet music of the 19th century, this one has a few slight snips and rearrangements, and minor chunks of it are then pasted into Act II.

The “Great Russian” version — originally directed and choreographed in 1993 by StanislavVlasov, though revised since then by sundry figures — cuts nothing but the coda to the Sugarplum solo. (Tchaikovsky himself sanctioned this excision in the 1892 premiere.) But the music is taped, and the staging’s emphasis on Love, Love, Love, makes this “Nutcracker” too much like every other classical ballet you’ve ever seen.

Drosselmeyer — the godfather/magician who gives Clara/Masha the Nutcracker in the first place — behaves in each version as if this story were about him. In the “Great Russian” staging (in which he wears no eye patch, unlike the character in Hoffmann’s original story), he spins on one leg in a grande pirouette during the battle. (Are we to presume that this helps defeat the mice? Maybe.)

In the Joffrey version he keeps preening around melodramatically in a swirling cloak and even takes over the running of the Kingdom of Sweets whenever the Sugarplum is offstage. He’s a kind of trite Dracula figure, and his protectorship of little Clara is too clingy and creepy for comfort.

On Wednesday night the Joffrey’s Sugarplum, Victoria Jaiani, moved with ardor and defined her dance phrases with distinction. But she sells her performance to the audience (“Isn’t this great? Wasn’t that wonderful?”) in a way that ensures that she casts no spell whatsoever.

Still, each version has real merits, both general and particular. There are children in both. The “Great Russian” staging actually has more American children than Russian adults. Fifty kids (who rehearsed for months) join each performance, usually a different team at each stop.

The Joffrey’s children are not only better trained but also wonderfully integrated into the whole stage world. Clara, Fritz (her brother) and the Nutcracker are played by adults, but they aren’t jarringly different from the real children, and everywhere the Joffrey adults behave with these children like real parents, maids, aunts or grandparents.

More specifically, the Joffrey’s Christmas party in this production makes an immediate impression as enchanting as in any “Nutcracker” I’ve seen. Probably its dances and details wouldn’t reward repeated viewing as much as Balanchine’s, but the humanity and theatrical vigor with which its many details are presented burst off the stage with the kind of Dickensian vitality that leads you deep into the whole idea of Christmas. Not an impossibly perfect Christmas (Fritz still breaks the Nutcracker) but one shot through with love, affection, neighborliness, high spirits and a kind aim to train children in good manners.

The “Great Russian” version (often pretty touristy and laden with kitsch, even by “Nutcracker” standards) has a knockout male dancer in the Arabian divertissement, Sergey Chumakov. He’s not actually the tallest male dancer onstage, but he seems it when partnering Elena Petrachenko, and his extraordinary physique — broad shoulders above a slender waist, but both as firm as any acrobat’s — confers an unusual thrill upon the work’s many lifts.

Elsewhere, the Russian ballet style is elegant, expansive and musically unsubtle. It doesn’t lead you into the threads of Tchaikovsky’s score. (In most of the Waltz of the Flowers, everyone dances one step per bar.) But it’s not mean-spirited.

In her first pas de deux with her transformed Nutcracker Prince, Masha (Alexandra Elagina) finds world enough and time to raise one leg slowly behind her until it’s the height of her shoulder. This slow ascent of one leg, while the music swells, seems brimful with feeling.

The Joffrey Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” will be performed through Sunday at the Kennedy Center in Washington; kennedy-center.org. It will run from Dec. 10 to 26 at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago; joffrey.com/nut. “The Great Russian Nutcracker,” danced by the Moscow Ballet, tours the United States through the end of the year; nutcracker.com.