Cracking the Nutcrackers

Russian expat George Balanchine choreographed The Nutcracker for New York City Ballet in 1954. Balanchine danced several roles in the ballet at the Maryinsky Theater created by Lev Ivanov’s 1892. He streamlined the story with a mix of neoclassic balletics and pantomime dance for American audiences. The Balanchine artistic trust only permits certain companies permission to dance Balanchine’s Nutcracker and there are plenty of other interpretations that re-imagining the story, some sticking closer to the ballet’s Russian origins.

When The Moscow Ballet’s ‘Great Russian Nutcracker’ swung into Philly for two nights at the Annenberg Center in Philly just nights after the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Balanchine production opened, I thought it would be interesting to compare the choreographic templates, lineage and impact on contemporary audiences.

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PB principal Alexander Peters leads the Candy Canes

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PB Principals Ian Hussey & Amy Aldridge as Sugar Plum & her Cavalier

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PB Corp de Ballet in Snowflake scene

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MoscowBallet Arabian Variation Sergey Chumakov & Elena Pretrachenko

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MB’s Harlequin scene

Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker

Academy of Music, Dec. 9-31

Pennsylvania Ballet Artistic Director Angel Corella continues to sharpen the company’s production of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker and since the Balanchine trust keeps tight reins on the few companies that are licensed to perform Mr. B’s, PAB’s attention to the smallest details make all of the difference, dusting off ACT I of ballet, which is can drag on if not fueled with enough performance energy.

Child dancers Claire Smith and Rowan Duffy as siblings Marie and Fritz, Both young dancers have natural stage presence and are strong dancer-actors, a key element in focusing the opening scenes. And this energy extends to all of the children at the Holiday party, which can often look like seasonal pageantry.

Corella is making sure that both the children and adult dancers are defining characters in their pedestrian and gestural movement.

PAB’s new dance master Charles Askgard portrays Herr Drosselmeir, and is a study of detailed pantomime dance. Even Balanchine’s lumbering mouse battle moves swiftly along.

The Act I solos commence when Drosselmeir animates the Harlequin dolls in their cute pointe patterns, but Balanchine saves the fireworks for the toy soldier solo, a precision dance, with precision flatfooted jumps and limb moving in sharp opposite angles- In this performance danced by Peter Weil with haunted eyes executing the drill steps.

After the faux mouse battle, Marie and the Nutcracker Prince are transported to the snowy forest where Snowflakes perform vintage Balanchine choreography full of geometric configurations and requiring tight esprit de corps. At this performance the corps’ ensemble had the pulse but veered off with some blurry unison pacing and scrambled transitions.

Amy Aldridge as the Sugar Plum Fairy among the little angel gliding over the floor to open Act two and Aldridge who has danced this role many times and this performance can be counted as among her most radiant performances.

In the Act II divertissment Lillian DiPiazza smolders as Coffee in the Arabian Dance and Jermel Johnson slices through the air with saber leg splits for Tea. Alexander Peters and his battalion of Candy Canes getting through those hoops with jaunty flair. Making the most of their flash tarantella in the Spanish Dance are newcomers Sterling Baca and Nayara Lopes.

But it was Dayesi Torriente dancing the lead in Marzapan Shepardess that stood out. This is a deceptively simple looking mid-tempo choreography, is actually very tricky and easily scuttled. Balanchine’s counterpoint patterning can loose technical clarity and merely look pretty. In this performance Torriente commanded with thrilling artistry and her Shepardesses- Adrianna deSvastich, Jacqueline Callahan, Yuka Iseda and Ana Calderan, were completely in sync.

The corp de ballet looked sharper than in the Snowflake scene, with precision and attack in Dewdrop Flowers dance. Principal Mayara Pineiro set the highest mark with her fiery lead solo. Pineiro can just hang on point arabesque and her transition steps flawless entrances and exits to diamond centered turns, airy jetes and luminous pointe work.

The finale pas de deux is all Balanchine fireworks and tests the mettle of even the most technically proficient dancers. Aldridge not missing a moment to thrill with her solid technical prowess from every angle. Aldridge and principal dancer Ian Hussey as her Cavalier with palpable chemistry throughout highlighted by their consistent fluency Balanchine’s difficult lift sequences. Hussey’s solos highlighted with centered turns and solid tours en l’air.

It can’t be understated how vibrant conductor Beatrice Jona Affron’s tempos, detailing and orchestral thrust of Tchaikovsky score are key. In Act I, among the outstanding soloists are Luigi Mazzocchi’s violin solo just engulfing the Academy and harpist Mindy Cutcher floating gorgeously crystal strings first as the first snowflake piques on the floor.

Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker

Annenberg Center, Philadelphia

Dec. 12-13

The Moscow Ballet version of the Nutcracker is a more classic Russian version, without doubt and is a choreographic update by the directors after Imperial Ballet period versions by Russian choreographic masters Vaganova, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

At the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker, you pick up right away that the story is much different, with Uncle Drosselmeyer, in a wonderfully danseur lead character part performed by Maksim Bernadskyl. Uncle is Christmas Eve magician who conjures the young girl Masha’s Nutcracker dream escorts us through the whole ballet.

Drosselmeyer Anastasiya Terada is hypnotic in her mechanical moves in a multi-colored ribbon tutu ‘Kissy Doll’ and Konstantin Vinovoy’s Harlequin (the prototype for Balanchine’s Soldier) equally spellbinding. Not transcribed by Balanchine are the Moor Dolls.

Where Balanchine leans heavily on just pantomime and gestural acting to carry Act I, here there is much more dancing including a waltz for the adults, and an officer saber dance.

The Nutcracker Doll & Prince is danced by Mykhailo Syniavskyl throughout (Balanchine turned it into a mostly pantomime role for a young male dancer).

The mice battle is a much more interesting scene, than Balanchine’s limp and comedic version. Here Sergyl Merzlyakov is not a fat cartoon rat, but a scary Rat King in red and black dyed tights stylishly sinister headpiece. The fight choreography has Merzlyakov slicing through the air or in thrilling sword dances with Nutcracker Prince.

Elena Petrichenko and Sergey Chumakov were flash dancing ‘Moor Dolls’ in the first act, but they emerge as virtuoso dance – acrobats to open Act 2 as the Dove of Peace, each with a majestic wing and they cleave together in a series of lifts that keep moving to various symbolic and sculpted positions. Later, the couple appears in an even more dramatic tableau in the Arabian Dance (a lengthier transcription of the Arabian music from Tchaikovsky’s score.)

Balanchine made this a solo dance and one of the highlights of his version for a smoldering solo for a principal ballerina. This has an equally entrancing quality and these two make the most of it.

Balanchine was skimpy on his version of The Spanish Dance even though he has four couples animated in a stylized tarantella, with fancier footwork for the leads pair. Moscow Ballet’s duet for Boris Yastrub and Olga Aru is more interesting in its variation; this couple has wonderful presence and flair in this dance, though their technique flagged.

Moscow Ballet’s ‘Chinese Variation’ (Tea) is much more developed than Balanchine’s flash dance version with glittering repeated phrases. MB’s is much more a character dance, however un-pc with ‘Orientalism.’ Juliya Verian and (stealing the show again) Sergyl Merziyakov’s playful patterns transition steps to technically dazzling double tempo grand pirouette and razor sharp aerial splits.

The reverse is true in The Snowflake ensemble dance at the end of Act I, Moscow’s Snowflakes are exemplar of Russian ballet decorousness, whereas in Balanchine’s turns the heat way up for the Snowflake scene to cap off Act I.

Moscow Ballet’s ‘Russian Variation’ is an expanded Czardas dance with Anton Romashkevych and Anna Bogatyr in traditional Ukrainian dress exuberant in high stepping patterns. Romashkevych in robust barrel rolls and Cossack plies, around Bogatyr, who is twirling like a top. Balanchine turned this into the Candy Canes hoop dance, which is just as effective as a scene, but doesn’t have this folkloric flavor.

Mykhilo Syniavskyi and Veronika Hordina have great chemistry and refinement in the central pas deux that define their characters and unfolds in dramatic finales for both acts.

So Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker has a lot to offer in contrast to Balanchine’s distillation of Russian aesthetics. Even with techniques among this large cast erratic, particularly in the corp de ballet scenes, it should be noted that dance schools and companies in Russia have gone through drastic reduction of state sponsorship over the last 20 years and that is a classic Russian story for another cold winter’s dance night.

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