Crackin’ Nuts at the Barre

Near the end of December, I got the chance to see the Nutcracker performed by the New York City Ballet. Choreographed by George Balanchine in 1954, the New York City Ballet’s version is widely considered to be the definitive production, so much so that no one at the NYCB is allowed to change any of the choreography ever. Ever. You over there–what’s that you’ve got in your hand? Is that a change to the choreography of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker? Put it down! Down! Now get out; you’ll never work in this town again!

All that said, the choreography is really stunning.

It was indeed a delightful experience. One thing that people don’t mention, though, is that all the parts that everyone talks about–the fantasy world made of candy, the dance of the Sugarplum fairy, even the part where a tiny wooden man stabs a rat to death–come fairly late in the play. The first, like, hour and a half is a Victorian-era Christmas party happening in real time. (Although it’s set in Germany, so I guess it’s a Kaiser Wilhelm-era Christmas party.) The hosts wait for people arrive, people arrive, hands are kissed, children are introduced and told to introduce themselves to other children, children are told to go do whatever it is that children do so that adults can have fun, adults drink, gifts are exchanged–all of this happens at realistic, often painstaking, speed. Which, while interesting, is not altogether fantastical and why in the world would you go to the trouble of putting it in a ballet?

Then we get some real stuff. Some stuff we can sink our teeth into. A grizzled old man with an eyepatch(!) named Herr Drosselmeyer shows up. And it is clear that this guy has seen. some. stuff. Seen enough stuff, in fact, to be in possession of a magical nutcracker man that can transform into a real person after tasting the blood of his rodent enemies. I think I can speak for all of us–and by “us” I mean “me”–when I say that we eagerly await a spinoff ballet about how Drosselmeyer lost that eye and how if you think that’s bad, you should see the other guy.

Eventually the Nutcracker, who is now a flesh person and a boy rather than a man for some reason, and the ballet’s heroine Clara enter a world of fantasy and wander around in the snow before entering a magical candy kingdom. This is oddly prescient of Tchaikovsky to know that snow would be rare and fantastical in the future because of global warming. Germans invading a beautiful and peaceful land in order to lord over its people and consume their resources was also a nice farsighted touch.

When they get to the fantasy kingdom made of candy, a bunch of food performs some really beautiful dances for them and a couple of racist ones. (Check out the “Tea Dance”; the egregious bowing and rice-farmer-hat-wearing doesn’t age well.) Then, the Sugarplum Fairy and some random beefy dude whom we have never seen before dance together in one of the most beautiful dances I have ever seen and which made me think about how my body is physically incapable of moving that gracefully. My muscles would get some sort of server error and pop up an “Error 404: Dancing Not Found” message. Oh, and I would fall over and break something or several somethings. But they found two people who are capable of moving that beautifully and do it at the same time, right next to each other! This is a modern marvel, and I think proof that the moon landing was not a hoax.

All in all, I highly recommend the Nutcracker, especially if you can find some kind of Drosselmeyer extended cut.

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