ABT’s Nutcracker: a Pleasant Surprise

Nutcracker with Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov

After watching the Mariinsky version of “The Nutcracker” on Christmas Eve, I stumbled upon the ABT version, filmed in 1977, choreographed by Vasily Vainonen and starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. I must say that I prefer the latter by a large degree after studying both.

I had no idea that the same ballet could be that different. The story line is similar in broad strokes but boy, how ingenious is the ABT version in terms of transitions in the plot, rendering the whole ballet actually a story that makes sense, instead of a mishmash of numerous pretty scenes put together with a very loose thread that can only be justified as a “dream sequence.” Surely the ABT version is a dream sequence, too. But as it is explained in the very beginning, the gift that Clara is about to receive on this Christmas night is the gift of a dream—it is intended by Uncle Drosselmeyer, who is a kind of wizard himself, instead of having the various dances in the Land of the Sweets just happening by chance.

This gift of a dream is actually the birth of a romantic dream in adolescence, represented by the character of Clara. It is a rite of passage, a coming of age, very beautifully portrayed by the ethereal Gelsey Kirkland. I was literally in tears watching her every movement, which simply melded with the beautiful Tchaikovsky music. There is absolutely no jarring steps. One scene leads to another in a seamless way, and Kirkland’s delicate footwork and expressive upper body are really unsurpassed. She is totally convincing playing a teenager, and her “growth” throughout the ballet is gradual and subtle, unlike the awkward switch from a teenager to a full-grown adult princess in the other versions.

Her acting is also superb. There is not a drop of doubt that she is completely smitten by the prince, played by Baryshnikov, and her whole body language exudes the excitement and slight nervousness of a girl who falls in love for the first time.

Baryshnikov is marvelous in his technique and actually not so bad in his acting, either! Very convincing as a prince in love with the young girl and ready to show her the world.

I also like the relative simplicity and smaller cast of the ABT version. Every detail is well thought out and nothing is superfluous, whereas the Mariinsky version seems to be a dozen cup cakes too many!

The only regrettable part of the ABT version is the costume of Clara. It looks as if she was wearing a night gown throughout the ballet. Perhaps that was the original intention, as she is in her dream anyway. But imagine how much more enjoyable if she was wearing a more flattering costume!

I will save the details now and not spoil the fun any further. Enjoy the ballet!

Nuts about Nutcracker

Come December, ballet dancers and spectators alike are all nuts about the Nutcracker. There are so many versions of the ballet. Which one(s) have you seen and do you prefer?

I have only seen the ballet once in a live performance by the New York City Ballet. At that time I hadn’t become a balletomane or a ballet student yet, so my memory is faint and I can’t really say much more than just being mesmerized for a moment by the snow flakes floating down on the stage!

It wasn’t until much later did I realize that what I saw was the version created by Balanchine in 1954, which popularized the ballet and established it as an annual Christmas tradition—a tradition that has since been used by ballet companies all over the world as—eh um—a “cash cow.” The very first performance of The Nutcracker was staged at the Mariinsky Theater in 1892 (see modern staging by Mariinsky above), but it wasn’t an instant success. It only became popular after American ballet companies staged it, the very first being the San Francisco Opera Ballet, in 1944. Balanchine changed a few characters and made it a highly popular ballet ever since.

Recently I have finished reading the biography of Rudolph Nureyev by Julie Kavanagh, in which Nureyev’s work on the Nutcrackers is detailed. I’m glad to have come across an article on Culture Kiosque that reviews different versions of the Nutcracker, with the verdict that Nureyev’s version is the best. It would not be hard to see that Nureyev has made the Prince an exceptionally interesting character to watch. His dancing rivals that of the female lead role. In fact, it was his idea to turn around Marius Petipa’s original choreography so that the male dancer would no longer play the “porter” role. I think he had succeeded big time!

Below you can see the footage of Nureyev himself dancing the pas de deux with Royal Ballet dancer Merle Park in the 1968 production, which he staged with the Royal Swedish Ballet:

And here you can see a modern version of Nureyev’s choreography performed by the Paris Opera Ballet: