The Nutcracker

The American Ballet Theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Thursday, December 30.

The Nutcracker has never been one of my favorite ballets. The Act I party scenes are dull, the Act II ethnic character dances are discomfiting, and the girl-and-her-nutcracker plot is so bizarre that I’ve never been able to make much emotional sense of it.

Yet despite my mixed feelings about The Nutcracker, I’ve seen it more than any other ballet. (In fact, I’ve already written about it two times here on this blog, which might help account for my pitiful sluggishness in finishing this post.) It’s a holiday standard, of course, but that doesn’t mean much to me. (Case in point: I have never seen one of those ubiquitous Rankin/Bass holiday specials—not even Rudolph.) Perversely enough, those mixed feelings are probably the reason for my repeated attendance at The Nutcracker. It’s such an insanely weird ballet that I’m always fascinated to see what the choreographers do with it. I’m usually disappointed or mildly repulsed, at least to some degree, but for some reason, that doesn’t stop me.

Alexei Ratmansky’s new production for the American Ballet Theatre works better than most. Most notably, the choreographer doubles the child Clara and child Nutcracker with an adult couple, their imagined grown-up selves—a conceit that works beautifully. It allows him to provide the main characters with virtuosic choreography, obviously, but it also gives the ballet a stronger dramatic arc, making this Nutcracker sweeter and more intimate than most. I only wish Ratmansky had extended that same thoughtfulness to some of the ballet’s other icky elements, but I suppose it wouldn’t be The Nutcracker if something wasn’t make me mildly queasy. And now I have something to bitch about. Tradition!

Let’s get the bitching out of the way first. I really don’t understand why choreographers insist on making the Act II Divertissement a smorgasbord of ethnic clichés. Neither the music nor the ballet’s traditional story demands it (as a child, I actually found the EPCOT-style country tour confusing—what did this have to do with candy?), and the Land of Sweets setting provides plenty of color to compensate for the “loss” of yellow face and harems. The Arabian dance, for example, is also titled “Coffee,” so why not embrace that? Give the number to a couple, one dressed in dark browns, one in something pale and diaphanous to represent cream. It could work! Disney’s Fantasia memorably uses the music to accompany two sultry goldfish, for god’s sake. Nothing’s binding anyone to trite seraglio antics.

The tired storytelling might be slightly more palatable if the choreography were more innovative, but most of the Divertissement feels dashed off, as if Ratmansky’s attention was elsewhere (as I expect it was). The Chinese dance is a particular letdown. The peppy music begs for crazy bravura leaps, but instead, there are just a lot of tame, uninspired hops and some head bobbing. Similarly, the Russian dance is mostly “comic” running about from a trio of buffoons.

Fortunately, the Divertissement is followed by an adorable “Waltz of the Flowers,” featuring a few male honeybees among the fluffy-skirted ballerina blossoms, and then the show-stopping Pas de deux, traditionally given to the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier but here danced by grown-up Clara and the Nutcracker Prince. In the performance I saw, Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes played the roles with guileless playfulness. You could see the children in them even as they executed Ratmansky’s spectacularly demanding choreography, marked by huge lifts and breathtaking catches. In lesser hands, it might have been merely showy, but Ratmansky weaves character and tenderness into the steps and Part and Gomes breathe life into their parts. Together, they bring Clara’s story to its high point.

The pas de deux is surely the pinnacle of Ratmansky’s Nutcracker, but it’s hardly the only high point. Nothing can make me love the party scene (and the choreography for the children is annoyingly stompy), but Drosselmeyer’s Columbine and Harlequin dolls get gorgeous costumes and charming, stylishly old-fashioned steps together. The battle between the rats and the toy soldiers is beautifully staged, with Clara perched atop an enormous chair, looming with the forced perspective of the set. In fact, all the sets and costumes, designed by Richard Hudson, are fabulously sumptuous, rich with detail and Victorian finery. As a holiday mainstay, The Nutcracker is worth investing in, and the American Ballet Theatre certainly appears not to have spared any expense in making this a resplendent Nutcracker to remember—and revive year after year.

My favorite moment, however, is one of the more low-key: the scene in the snow before the Waltz of the Snowflakes begins in earnest. Child Clara and the Nutcracker boy (played Thursday with poise and appealing earnestness by Athena Petrizzo and Philip Perez) are beginning their journey, dancing together with naïve grace in the snowy woods, and then Part and Gomes appear and mirror their steps. It reminded me of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Scènes de Ballet,” which employs a similar effect, turning a reflection into something much more magical: the future, fashioned by a child’s hope and optimism and innocence into a beautiful ideal. In that moment, Ratmansky accomplished what I had thought impossible: he made me accept The Nutcracker as a delicate, winsome portrait of first love. In spite of myself, in spite of the sheer oddness of the male lead’s identity and the obsession with rats and the Freudian weirdness with Drosselmeyer, in spite of it all, yes, I was touched.