Posts Tagged ‘Mark Morris’

Review – The Nutcracker – Royal Ballet (2009)

December 18, 2009

When Christmas time comes around, I’ve got three things on my mind: A Christmas Carol, panto, and Nutcracker. These, to me, are the three elements that build holiday cheer and a real feeling of “It’s Christmas!” in me. And, insofar as I am able, every year I try to see a new version of each of these shows, meaning I’ve seen both a black light and a South African “Christmas Carol,” and Nutcrackers ranging from Mark Morris’s “Hard Nut” (which required a trip to San Francisco) and Matthew Bourne‘s (which has my favorite first act of all). Last year we saw Mr. B’s version at City Ballet, and I was surprised at how inflexible I was as to certain story elements. This review, then, isn’t so much about the dance, it’s about the performance elements of the ballet, and how it compares to my mental ideal of The Nutcracker, formed on a version I saw in Munich in 1981, Arizona Ballet’s version, and (to some extent) Pacific Northwest Ballet’s bizarre incarnation. (For the record, the female star should be called Clara. I realize Mr. B did not adhere to this, but you can’t just go around calling Sleeping Beauty “Heather” – it doesn’t work.)

The ballet opens in a workshop, where Drosselmeier (Gary Avis) is making two dolls. The first, an angel, he sends off with his assistant to be delivered to Clara’s parents’ house. The second is, of course, the Nutcracker, whom we see suddenly peering out at us through a scrim (that had been a picture of a soldier). This was all a very new setup for the opening scenes, and I liked it a lot – it got us through a lot of the music with the addition of some very meaningful narrative. We also were introduced to the utterly bizarre Assistant (Ludovic Ondiviela) – who probably could have been used much better than he was as he only got one little star turn in the whole night.

Then it’s time for the party. This scene was far less chaotic and dull than many versions I’ve seen, doubtlessly in part because of choreographer Peter Wright’s completely correct choice to have Clara (Iohna Loots) performed, all the way through, by an adult woman, meaning there is room for much more good dancing in this act rather than the excess of flim flam you get when you’re trying to make too much out of child dancers. We still had the doll-carrying girls versus the soldier-carrying boys; but we also had a nice dance of the adults with a little tableau of the servants at the far back of the stage in front of the Christmas tree as well as doll dances done with a Harlequin/Columbine and a Soldier and, er, uh, “Vivandiere” (seemed like “mean chick who hangs out with the soldiers and would just as likely beat you to death herself”). I thought the two pairs of dances were charming rather than particularly virtuosic, but didn’t mind. Drosselmeier himself was a real wizard type, juggling, making flowers appear out of nowhere, and leaving a trail of glitter wherever he walked. I liked this portrayal quite a bit.

As for the set, there was the seemingly requisite owl, but also a soldier bunny (who came back to haunt us); and a strange giant dollhouse that only appears after the “transformation” scene. The angel makes several appearances after being given to Clara’s family: first in a sort of hallucination, when only Clara sees her full sized in front of the tree; then leading the change into the “giant Christmas tree;” again pulling the sleigh Clara and the Nutcracker use to go to Sugarplum Land; then, at the beginning of act 2, as a group of six dancing in the smoke to greet them upon their arrival. It was a very unique take and one I enjoyed.

Unfortunately the various dances in the suite weren’t all I wanted them to be. The Russian and Chinese dances were great: in these, the trope of having Clara and her soldier dance with the character dancers was perfect, showing off Ricardo Cervera’s kicking skills and Iohna’s grace and charm. The Arabian sequence didn’t have the sensuality I wanted, though, and the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy was just … flat, not at all the dance extravaganza I was hoping for. Ah well, the Waltz of the Flowers was good, at least, if just a wee bit on the sugary side.

Overall I thought this was a very good Nutcracker, probably the second best of all the ones I’ve seen, and well worth seeing again. Still, I’m hoping next year I can travel for a Nut, and see either Birmingham Royal Ballet or Ballet Scotland, and see something really new and different.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 16th, 2009. All performances are sold out but you might be able to get day seats.)

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Review – The Nutcracker – New York City Ballet (Lincoln Center)

December 29, 2008

Two days before Christmas my husband and I went to Lincoln Center to see City Ballet’s Nutcracker, as choreographed by Balanchine himself. According to the program, Balanchine is the one who brought this ballet back into the modern story ballet repertoire and established it as the Christmas ballet of choice for all dance companies, and before he touched it, it has pretty much been unloved in forgotten*. What I was there to see, though, was not “The Nutcracker, as Envisioned by Mr. B. in the Great Revelation Which He Shared with America,” but rather yet another take on one of my favorite story ballets (most of the versions I see credit Petipa as being the originator of their choreography), one which has millions of different possible combinations of how to handle the music. I’ve seen Kent Stowell’s (at Pacific Northwest Ballet), Matthew Bourne’s, English Ballet’s, Arizona Ballet Theater’s, and a few others I can’t remember right now. I love the way all of these different choreographers and dance companies take something which I sort of think doesn’t have a lot of flexibility (the music stays the same and there’s always the Hoffman story behind it all) and makes completely different ballets – in my mind, at least.

City Ballet’s Nutcracker is most notable, in my mind, for the fact that rather than having Clara turn into an adult before she goes into the fantasy world (where the various Suite dances take place), a child is present throughout in the role – which limits the dancing she can do, as you’ll never get anywhere near the same quality of dancing from an 8 or 10 year old as a 24 year old! (She’s also called “Marie” instead of Clara – how did that happen? – and was performed by Maria Gorokhov.) This also limits the emotional intensity of the role – it’s not about her coming into adulthood, it’s dancing about an 8 year and her toys and fantasies. This is not intrinsically interesting and, I think, diminishes the overall potential of the ballet substantially.

That said, there are things to enjoy about the first act, primarily the costumes and the charm of the young dancers (and some fun scenery as a scrim is used to hide the living room, the first time I’ve ever seen this done – the children stand in front of a door and peer in the keyhole, and the lights go on behind the scrim so we can see what they are looking at). This half of the Nutcracker follows a more or less normal “plot,” with boys and girls (and adults) showing up for a party at Marie’s parent’s house, Marie being given a Nutcracker, and the inevitable fight between the boys with their war toys and Marie (and the girls) which results in the Nutcracker being injured, a “growing Christmas tree” and rat/mice versus Nutcracker battle.

City Ballet’s also has a dance for other toys that Drosselmeier brings with him, in this case a toy soldier (Austin Laurent) and a “Harlequin and Columbine” pair (Erica Pereira and Brittany Pollack). There is also a new character, the nephew of Drosselmeier (played by Joshua Shutkind), who is kind to and solicitous of Marie (and later becomes the spirit animating the Nutcracker when we move on to the dream sequence). Marie falls asleep on a couch and the story transitions into the dream sequence, of which the most notable thing was the multi-headed rat king. Once the Nutcracker has defeated him, his crown is given to Marie, and the set is swept away to a snowy wonderland (no idea why) where Marie and the Nutcracker appear to be royalty of some sort and hordes of ballerinas come out to dance as snowflakes while white bits fall from the ceiling. This last bit was pure theatrical magic, although I was a bit worried that the ballerinas were going to slip on the “snow.”

The second half follows the conceit that the ballet is taking place in the “Land of Sweets,” but all of the traditional names for the solos have been changed. The Arabian (or Peacock in Stowell’s version) dance is now “Coffee,” the Chinese dance is “Tea,” the Russian dance is Candy Canes – where did this come from? I was put off my the peculiar choices here. On the other hand, the freaky woman with the giant skirt I hadn’t seen since Ballet Arizona made an appearance, and I got a huge laugh watching the little kids come out from under her skirts and dance on stage. Thanks to Justin Peck for being this ballet’s panto dame (Mother Ginger, to be accurate) – I really enjoyed his clowning and hamming. We also got a nice Waltz of the Flowers, with the flowers in lovely tiered full skirts in increasing intensity of pink that poofed up gorgeously as they swirled around. Aaah!

Unfortunately, I was rather checked out for Teresa Reichlen and Charles Askegard’s performance in the final duet of “The Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier.” But I don’t think it was just me worrying about the bills piling up during this trip; it was the rather uninspired choreography in all of the show leading to its ultimate, well, canned duet. I just wonder what was going on for Balanchine – to me, it felt like he just wasn’t very excited about this show and didn’t want to make it a showcase for outstanding dancing – he just wanted to move the narrative along. I wonder if the music didn’t inspire him enough, or if he was in a hurry, or if there was something else going on – but when I think of the incredible things he was doing at this time and earlier, I feel like he forgot to care about the Nutcracker enough to make it a great dance piece. So, overall, while I found this an entertaining enough evening, I left disappointed. Balanchine was not only not able to make the first act any better than almost anyone else (only Bourne has excelled here), but he didn’t even make the second act brilliant like I think he had the ability to do. Ah, well – at least the music was great, and with luck, I’ll be able to see City Ballet more than once in ten years and get a better choice of shows the next time.

(This review is for a performance that took place at 6 PM on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008.)

*Note the Wikipedia article on the Nutcracker completely blows this assertion out of the water. What is up with this obsessive worship of Balanchine? Is City Ballet incapable of accepting the fact that things have gone on in ballet during the time he was choreographing that didn’t involve him, that other influences were moving ballet forward at the same time? No wonder I came to the UK being ignorant of Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan!

Reviews – Ramayana (Lyric Hammersmith) and American Ballet Theater mixed rep (La Bayadere, Drink to Me Only, Fancy Free – Sadler’s Wells)

February 15, 2007

Last night we went to see The Ramayana at the Hammersmith Lyric. J thought it was much more “on” as a high-fairy-tale show than His Dark Materials and hit the notes right. I liked its imaginative set and use of theatrical devices to convey literal impossibilities (i.e. someone jumping across an ocean). It seemed a bit dry, though; the costumes seemed a bit on the cheap or something. And, to tell the truth, in this age in which religious intolerance is running so high, I found the constant slamming of “them dirty godless (Buddhist) materialists down south” grating, and was pretty well mortified when Sita immolated herself at the end to prove to her heartless husband her love for him stayed true no matter what had happened to her body. Thinking of all the women burned on pyres in the practice of “suttee” just depressed me. That said, overall a very good show, and since first week’s tickets were £9, also a great deal if you like watching these kind of stylized stories on stage.

Tonight was what was supposed to be our Valentine’s day date, a trip to see American Ballet Theater at Sadler’s Wells. (I got the dates wrong so I wound up seeing two shows instead – naughty me, huh?) It was a three-part show, with La Bayadere (guy goes to the land of the shades to dance with his girlfriend – very 1870, pretty with white tutus), a Mark Morris piece (“Drink to me Only,” lighter with better movement) and Jerome Robbin’s classic Fancy Free, a typical end-the-show-hoot with boys in sailor suits flirting with saucy 40s girls, complete with high kicks and purse fights. We enjoyed the evening but someone’s still got some jet lag and, er, someone else can feel the long day at work and previous late night slowing her down.

(The Ramayana was seen February 14th, 2007 and the American Ballet was seen February 15th, 2007.)