It seems odd to reflect that Tchaikovsky himself did not really enjoy the subject as he worked on this commission, nor did he feel that the music was out of his top drawer. It's a totally safe bet to state that more people have heard the score of The Nutcracker performed live than any other work by the composer, perhaps more than any other classical work of music -- although Messiah would be in a neck-and-neck race there!
But about the timeliness: the National Ballet's famous version, choreographed by James Kudelka and designed by Santo Loquasto, celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. Twenty years. That's a number worth considering. During those twenty years, this one production has been seen by over one million people. Let that one sink in for a moment. And yet it still seems to me fresh and new.
Of course, The Nutcracker is a seasonal staple among ballet companies all over the world -- and among orchestras too, where ballet companies do not exist. But after seeing video recordings of half a dozen other versions, I have yet to find any other Nutcracker which is as glorious, as festive, as entertaining -- indeed hilarious -- as this one.
In brief, it's a fantastic cross-fertilization of comedy and theatre and dance and music, all rolled into one.
Two couples were talking beside me at the intermission. One woman asked the other couple whether they enjoyed it. Here are the replies:
HE: The sets and costumes are really great.
SHE: It was nice once the ballet got going in the snow scene.
That made me laugh (talk about the two extremes) but both of them, in their own terms, were right.
A dance purist might not enjoy the long opening party scene. This is where most of the Keystone Kops comedy moments occur -- including a runaway rat in the barn, a teetering tea tray, dancing and roller-skating bears, a dancing horse, a snowball fight, and more. But hey, it's set at a Christmas party and if anyone's ever been to a Christmas party where everyone stood decorously in a line, in exactly identical poses, and making exactly identical movements, I can only say that they have my sympathy. A Christmas party ought to balance right on the verge of anarchy!
Anarchy is mainly supplied by the two children Kudelka has placed at the centre of the story, Marie and her brother Misha (danced last night by Maya Fazzari and Maximilian Raszewski). As one would expect of two small children, they are mischievous little imps, cute and sweet one minute and devilish the next. What is totally unexpected, compared to many other Nutcrackers, is that they, and their numerous peers, actually dance -- and dance a great deal too.
Such dancing as does occur is heavily flavoured with the styles of Slavic folk dance, appropriate since this version is set in Tsarist Russia. This is especially true of the mysterious character of Uncle Nikolai who provides the magic that entertains everyone through the party. Kudelka's choreography for him is unique -- part Russian folk, part modern, part classical, and all very high energy. When Uncle Nikolai dances -- and especially when he spins -- the skirts of his heavy red coat fly out all around him. His pas de deux with a horse which is itself animated by two dancers is one of the great comic highlights of the show. Robert Stephen generated plenty of zip and go in this key role.
(Conflict of Interest Alert: Yes, he's my nephew -- but first and foremost he's a damn good dancer!).
The battle scene doesn't make any more sense than in any version of the story, but it does have the merit of including large numbers of costumed animals and soldier mice, a cue for introducing students from a number of Toronto schools alongside the dance students of the National Ballet School. Incidentally, the battle also brings in the famous cannon scene, with the two "Cannon Dolls" at each performance played by two locally prominent people -- in this case, a Toronto city councillor and spouse.
After the battle, though, as the toy nutcracker metamorphoses into the Nutcracker Prince, the stage smoothly morphs into the snow-glistening birch forest to some of the most beautiful, heartfelt music Tchaikovsky ever composed -- music whose every bar is steeped in yearning or perhaps nostalgia. Kudelka's exquisite pas de trois for the Snow Queen and her two Icicles is majestic, stately, eminently royal and gravely beautiful -- a hand-in-glove fit to the music if ever there was one. It was beautifully danced last night by Jenna Savella, Giorgio Galli, and Jack Bertinshaw. Savella in particular conveyed an air of deeply-rooted joy which I can't recall ever feeling in this scene before.
At the same time, it's sometimes hard to avoid being distracted by the gigantic snowflakes rotating slowly in the air at the top of the proscenium!
The second act takes us into the red and gold spectacle of the Sugar Plum Fairy's magic palace. She appears almost immediately from inside her giant Faberge egg to dance her famous solo. Jurgita Dronina, a new principal dancer with the company, was making her role debut this year. Her dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy was precise, clean, and rock-steady -- all wonderful attributes. It's a difficult role in which to find much emotion, but again I sensed an air of joyfulness. And after all, that's probably the character's principal function -- to spread joy around her.
Her Nutcracker Prince was Naoya Ebe, also making his role debut. In his first act appearance as Peter, the stable boy, I liked the playfulness with which he interacted with Marie and Misha. In the second act, he was all ardent youth and high spirits. The choreography calls for him to be smitten with the Fairy as soon as he sees her, and this was convincing. It's only there, really, to lay the groundwork for the emotional climax of the evening -- the grand romantic pas de deux. Ebe, in face and gesture alike, beautifully conveyed the yearning which again comes to the fore in Tchaikovsky's music. Dronina counterpointed it with a sudden lighting of her face, in almost a mischievous grin, as she turned back to him at the end after seeming to bid him farewell.
In between these two moments comes more comic business (a runaway chicken), some heavily gymnastic dancing by four waiters and Nikolai, a charming little dance of baby sheep, the vigorous Spanish Chocolate dance and the hypnotically stylized Arabian Coffee -- followed by the swirling colours of the famous Waltz of the Flowers. The tutus are layered with what look like large petals, and there are at least three different multi-coloured designs in play. Colour and contrast is provided by four "Branches", male dancers in forest-green velvety costumes. Part of the stage-filling effect of this dance is the way Kudelka gives different groups of dancers very different movements, and then puts them all into motion on the stage at the same time (a technique also used by Balanchine, among others).
According to tradition, the final waltz brings back multiple dancers from earlier in the act. In a way, it's almost like the precursor of a "dancing curtain call" in a modern musical show.
This Nutcracker truly has something for everyone. Amazingly, it still seems as fresh and inspired to me today as the first time I saw it, 20 years ago. Odd details here and there make it plain that the dancers do bring their own little touches into their roles, so that the show is indeed never quite the same twice running.
Considering that the company does over thirty performances a year, the sheer joie de vivre of this performance, so near the end of their grueling run, was even more remarkable.