Choreographer: Alexei Ratmansky
Set and Costume Design: Richard Hudson
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton
American Ballet Theatre
Opera House, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
December 8, 2011
By Lisa Traiger
You don’t always get “The Nutcracker” you want, but, invariably, in the overabundance of this sugar plum-filled season you sometimes get “The Nutcracker” you need. Alexei Ratmansky’s latest version from 2010 for American Ballet Theatre, in its first foray beyond New York, is a sweetly digestible one for these heart-burn inducing times. Beyond Clara’s awakening from innocent child to curious (but still chaste) adolescent, the ballet’s other subject is chiefly gluttony -– that act-two trip to the Kingdom of the Sweets, introduces Clara and the audience to a vicarious land of coffees, cakes and candies, danced, as always, to that luscious Tchaikovsky score that has been bastardized by too many television commercials and shopping mall soundtracks.
With the sweetly, gluttonous subtext, it’s more than fitting that Ratmansky launches the ballet behind the scenes in the large cook’s kitchen. There pre-party chaos reigns as the curtain rises: The cook, butler and maids flit at their wits’ ends while little and not so little mice play a Tom-and-Jerry game of hide-and-seek and snatch garlands of meaty sausages. Mihail Chemiakian’s grotesque vision of “The Nutcracker” that he did for the Mariinsky Ballet in 2003, immediately comes to mind, for he, too, began in a kitchen, though darker and more sinister as it was strung with sausages.
Ratmansky keeps proceedings light through much of act one’s party scene, which has the feel of organized chaos, although at times he shows us too many backs,especially of the graspy children. The adults fade into the background as hordes of those well-dressed but not-so-well-behaved young ones (finely trained students at the company’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in New York) run riot in anticipation of presents and sweets -– another sign of our holiday of conspicuous consumption. Clara, finely danced by Mikaela Kelly on opening night, is a near model child –- she has no Freudian hang-ups, doesn’t hate her parents, doesn’t even hate that bothersome brother –- and surely she does well in school too. Even rambunctious Fritz –- Kai Monroe –- isn’t a real bad seed, just a bit high strung -– maybe from anticipating all that sugar. In any case, the conflict over the broken Nutcracker doll is quickly smoothed over.
Victor Barbee’s Drosselmeyer is more magic than mystic, though he does have a touch of that as well and in his round spectacles, top hat and cape he suggests a balletic Johnny Depp (in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" not Jack Sparrow -– no wonder all the middle-aged women swooned over his slightly feminine gait. There’s no seediness or sexual undertone in the way this beloved uncle favors Clara with an enchanted Nutcracker doll. Here, Ratmansky gets the child-like imagination just right: the gift he gives comes to Clara in real boy form and we see her imagination at work as she humanizes the doll, while everyone is distracted at the buffet table. If this were a movie, everything would go fuzzy at this point to suggest an interior monologue. But that’s not needed here; Kelly has the acting chops to support the illusion.
Later, during the battle scene, The Nutcracker Boy, as he’s called here (Theodore Elliman), is valiant, but as always, Clara comes to the rescue with a pitch of her shoe against that nasty seven-headed Mouse King. Ratmansky’s most touching moments are actually the small but not insignificant gestures shared between young Clara and her boy prince -– a shy glance, a steady gaze, clasped hands, a brush across a shoulder. These speak of young love. But Ratmansky reminds us that they're still kids: I love how they tear through the snow storm and slip and slide amid the swirling ballerina snowflakes. Perfect.
Later, in act two’s Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the dancing sweets and teas are introduced by a turbaned pasha (Zhong-Jing Fang) and her majordomo (Alexei Agoudine) as the non-dancing Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. Ratmansky’s vision includes some humorous takes on the traditional character dances in stylish and clever costume designs by Richard Hudson. There are cartoonish bumblebees wearing helmets and oversized goggles, a harem straight from the Arabian peninsula and a bald(!) and bare-chested Sascha Radesky as the polygamous husband. The brisk Chinese duo sparkles with cartwheels and bright footwork executed by Skylar Brandt and Daniil Simkin. The Russian trepak here is an athletic goof: a trio of clownish dudes are part Russian acrobats, part beer-drinking buddies and all fun and smiles.
The dream-like quality of this “Nutcracker,” though, comes to fruition when Clara and her boy-prince are transformed into ardent adult lovers, a glamorous princess and a prince. Opening night Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes portray the adult alteregos with fervent passion and Part is both meltingly lush and girded by steel, while Gomes is any woman’s dream: supportive, loving and exuberant in his mimed marriage proposal (not a usual “Nutcracker” feature). Ultimately, Clara’s adventure and transformation in the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy turns out to be, alas, a dream -- which we've seen before in Baryshnikov's version among others. But in Ratmansky’s hands it’s a wonderful one. This rendering is clearly for American audiences weaned on conspicuous consumption, but momentarily exhausted by the bitter and vitriolic cultural and political conversations of the day. His “Nutcracker" is an anecdote -- sweet, nostalgic, but not cloying, and the fact that he populates the stage with ever so slight and sly suggestions from pop culture –- a pair of governesses who recall Neil Simon’s tittering Pigeon sisters, the quartet of bumblebees who look like stars of the next post-modern cartoon sitcom -– gives this classic an up-to-date feel. Ratmansky’s “Nutcracker” is right for right now. Will it be one for the ages? Only time will tell.