The problem with getting Balanchine’s Nutcracker out of your head while watching other versions isn’t just that it’s so familiar; it’s that it’s so perfect. He knew the Tchaikovsky ballet inside out, of course: As a boy, at the Maryinsky, when the ballet was barely 20 years old, he had been the Mouse King, the Prince and later the Candy Cane. More important, for him Tchaikovsky was a god–and, he said, The Nutcracker was Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. What he took from the score, above and beyond everything else, was that it was intended as a celebration of Christmas–a child’s Christmas.
Balanchine also emphasized that the original scenario was based less on the famous tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann than on the lighter French version of the story by Dumas père. “Everything that appears in the second act of Nutcracker is a candy or something tasty,” Balanchine told Simon Volkov in their book of interviews. “Or a toy. … The Sugar Plum Fairy is a piece of candy and the dewdrops are made of sugar. The Buffon is a candy cane. It’s all sugar!” And spectacle. Stravinsky agreed: He once remarked to Balanchine that he particularly liked Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker “because there is no heavy psychology in it, just an entertaining spectacle, understandable without tons of words.”
Balanchine shows us an instant grave connection between his little heroine and the polite boy who in the first act Drosselmeyer brings to the Christmas party. It’s a moving suggestion of how children can be drawn to each other–a touching foreshadowing of sexual attraction. But his children remain children throughout their dream experience, from the nightmare of the battle with the mice to their joyous visit, as Sugar Plum’s guests, to the Kingdom of the Sweets. They have an adventure but they don’t have a story.
There are countless other versions that do center on a story–a story of a girl’s psychological growth from preadolescence to young womanhood, and of the children’s awakening feelings for each other and their eventual adult union. The brilliant Alexei Ratmansky, in ABT’s new production, which premiered before Christmas at BAM, both sticks to the basics and steps out into a modest story line. Early on, his young Clara and her Nutcracker boy are pointedly shown echoing their adult avatars, the Princess and Prince, who perform a classical duet that does get the principal dancers onstage in Act I but blunts their eventual big pas de deux. We don’t need young Clara imagining her future this explicitly. And it seems gratuitous when at the end of the ballet we’re shown the Prince and the Princess getting married. This is not the kind of happy ending Nutcracker demands. When Clara goes home to bed, she should have visions of sugarplums dancing in her head, not visions of wedding veils.
Ratmansky gives us the conventional Christmas party, but before we get to it there’s an introductory kitchen scene that all too cutely establishes the mice as major players. Seen once, it’s charming; seen again and again, it suffers the fate that cuteness inevitably brings upon itself. The party scene amusingly deploys the usual naughty Fritz, but the interplay between the boy and the girl children is strangely pallid. The growth of the Stahlbaums’ tree is also under-exploited. It sort of grows, sort of tilts, sort of inches forward and then is awkwardly replaced by gigantic frail and unconvincing boughs that lumber on from the stage-right wings. Meanwhile, our minds can’t help recalling the magic of Balanchine’s thrilling tree. It’s not just nostalgia that makes us miss it now: A great coup de theatre has been replaced by a humdrum device.
Even so, Ratmansky delivers many happy effects here. His dances for Drosselmeyer’s puppets are ingenious and appealing. When the boy Nutcracker is felled by Fritz, the four puppets rush back on and stand over him in frozen poses of concern. An immense storybook chair glides onto the stage, from which Clara flings her slipper and conquers the Mouse King. Things aren’t helped by a Drosselmeyer whose characterization lacks focus, but Ratmansky’s Clara-the extraordinarily sensitive half-child, half-adolescent Catherine Hurlin-holds everything together with her believable and blessedly uncute performance.
And then a dazzling triumph. The Snowflake scene turns into an electrifying pas d’action, Clara and the Boy darting through the snow, sliding and flopping on the ice, being normal, happy kids at play–until the sky darkens, the snowflakes grow threatening, the cold turns to chill and danger is only averted by the arrival of Drosselmeyer with a sleigh to carry them off to the Kingdom of the Sweets. Here we don’t miss Balanchine’s glorious abstractions because Ratmansky has come up with such a felicitous substitute. Unlike so many other talented choreographers, he’s completely comfortable with ballet on the largest scale.