Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Visions of sugar plums: George Balanchine's The Nutcracker

Really Shameful Confession, of grab-the-smelling-salts proportions: I have never been to the ballet in New York City.  I'm sorry.  Another Really Shameful Confession: I have scarcely been to the ballet at all.  My younger sister and I did all but wear out a VHS of Swan Lake, but family excursions to musical performances, when they happened, were mostly to the symphony (with occasional Gilbert & Sullivan.)  College was rural.  Excuses, excuses.  I did see a really exciting performance of Prokoviev's Romeo and Juliet at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 2005, unabashedly fierce and angular in choreography and musical interpretation alike, if memory is to be trusted.  But that, as far as memory extends, is my only ballet experience besides a Nutcracker when I was seven (I loved the Christmas tree, and the Dance of the Snowflakes, and was fascinated and frightened by Uncle Drosselmeier) and one when I was thirteen (I thought the pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier was the most ravishingly romantic music I had ever heard, and was fascinated and frightened by Uncle Drosselmeier.)  Why, after allowing so many tantalizing offerings to pass unseen, do I inaugurate my New York City Ballet experience with The Greatest Christmas Cliché of Them All?  Well... I did love it when I was seven, and when I was thirteen.  Furthermore, the Beloved Flatmate has never seen The Nutcracker live!  "But the Christmas tree!" I stammered, when I learned this.  "The snowflakes!"  And then I pulled myself together and said that, after all, Tchaikovsky has been unjustly trivialized, and all the musical sparkle and spectacle would be lifeless without the thrillingly dark, ruthless streak that lies within the best fairy tales (in my raised-on-the-Brothers-Grimm opinion.)

Feeling vaguely as though I should be wearing patent leather Mary Janes, then, to The Nutcracker I went.  I was surprised to see quite a number of people my own age, in clothes far more expensive than my own, also present, together with a smattering of tourists and the expected throngs of delighted children and contented attendant adults.   As a ballet audience member, I am all but entirely uninformed, but I was continuously astonished and childishly delighted by the skill of the dancers.  (The American Ballet Theatre has an online ballet dictionary which I will be referring to in the process of becoming a less-ignorant audience member for future outings.) I was intrigued to learn from the program that Balanchine's deliberately old-fashioned production was in its own way daring in 1954: would the audiences of the avant garde New York City Ballet come to it?  The Nutcracker may be a hallowed Christmas tradition now, but has not been from time immemorial.  I couldn't help being charmed by it; this may be the artistic equivalent of a sugar rush, but I can't stop smiling and humming things.

Part of my brain, admittedly, was and is begging for the dark heart of the fairy tale: this was nearly all sugary sweetness.  The Kingdom of Sweets was pink, for goodness' sake.  And as a parent, how would I answer a question about how the dancer sinuously personifying Coffee was (or was not) dressed?  "Well, darling, there's a thing called Orientalism..."  And I am spoiled by the excellence of the Met orchestra.  But, from my novice perspective, the choreography was interesting, especially in the establishment of Klara as a courageous and generous-spirited girl. I've always loved the fact that her Nutcracker is prized above the boring old dolls, and cherished no less fiercely for being damaged.  It made total sense that this feisty and independent Klara would throw her slipper at the Mouse King (here a many-headed monster.)  Uncle Drosselmeier is still an excitingly ambiguous figure. There is a dance about chocolate.  The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is still ravishingly romantic.  I look forward to experiencing more and more innovative dance, but I am connected to my inner seven-year-old right now and happy about it.  So there.
Before the curtain: orchestras are exciting!

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