The Nutcracker

The New York City Ballet on Tuesday, December 5.

Time and endless repetition might have dulled the creepy edge from the story of The Nutcracker, but it’s still there. Underneath all the sugarplums and snowflakes is the weird tale of little Marie (or Clara, depending on the storyteller), whose godfather manipulates her into dreaming of his young nephew saving her from a mutant rodent and then whisking her away to a magical kingdom of sugar and antiquated stereotypes. It’s like a child’s feverish sexual fantasy: she gets the boy and lots of candy! Hot! The Nutcracker has its odd charms, to be sure, but how did it become America’s favorite ballet, the crossover hit?

The second act is lots of fun, I’ll grant you, especially after the tedious opening scenes at the Christmas party in the first act. Tchaikovsky’s party music is uncharacteristically dull and repetitive without a single standout melody. George Balanchine’s choreography, meanwhile, focuses on the children, and let’s face it: if they aren’t your kids, it’s not tremendously exciting to watch such young dancers. They’re cute, but the little hops and bows and pantomimes get old quickly.

In the second act, Balanchine quickly shuttles the children to the back of the stage, and that’s when the ballet finally comes alive with a series of delightful bite-sized character dances representing sweets from around the world. The dated ethnic clichés are unfortunate (sultry Coffee from Arabia, twee head bobs and bows from Chinese Tea), but they’re relatively innocuous. It would be churlish to deny the innocent appeal of The Nutcracker’s sweets dances.

Tchaikovsky’s music for the second act is a feast of orchestral variety, showcasing seemingly every instrument from low brass to high strings, and Balanchine’s choreography matches its multifarious spark beautifully. The contrast from one number to the next makes the ballet feel like a chocolate sampler box: each candy is delicious and tantalizingly small, but eager anticipation of the next treat easily overshadows any disappointment with the abbreviated pleasures of the first.

I have a weakness for the boyish athleticism of the candy cane Trépak (the Russian dance), but my favorite segment is “Waltz of the Flowers,” particularly Dewdrop’s solos, when the breezy floral theme gives way to a richer, more dramatic melody just for her.

The real drama, of course, is reserved for the Sugarplum Fairy and her cavalier. On Tuesday night, Wendy Whelan and Nikolaj Hübbe performed the pas de deux with ardor; the grand sweep of their steps—ending with him holding her at a steep angle, her head and chest bowed regally to the ground, her feet pointed to the rafters—left me dazzled and breathless.

Balanchine’s choreography is lovely, but Mikhail Baryshnikov had the right idea, giving this, the most passionate music of the ballet, to adult dancers playing the not-so-little girl and her Prince. That pas de deux is the climax, the beating heart of The Nutcracker. In Balanchine’s version, one forgets all about the two children sitting at the back of the stage, and the final waltz, in which they make their good-byes, feels anticlimactic after the Sugarplum performance. When Baryshnikov choreographed the beloved ballet and gave the central roles to adults (including himself), he gave the ballet a stronger dramatic arc: Marie/Clara should dance in the big pas de deux. She’s the protagonist!

Perhaps even better, making Marie/Clara an older adolescent rather than a prepubescent girl strips away some of the story’s creepiness. By embracing its underlying sexuality and adjusting it to feature more suitable ages, Baryshnikov makes The Nutcracker a tender (if still slightly twisted) story of first love. I enjoyed Balanchine’s Nutcracker—and god knows the dancing was exquisite—but the passion of the Sugarplum pas de deux made me long for a story worthy of it.