Friday, December 10, 2004
Don't give up on Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker
Sanguine about this year's heightened competition for holiday audiences, Boston Ballet's Artistic Director Mikko Nissenen said, "Bring it on!" For years, audiences filled the Wang Center for the run of The Nutcracker, providing the company with 30% of its operating budget. Boston's Christmas traditions also included Christmas with the [Boston] Pops, Handel & Haydn Society's Messiah, and the Christmas Revels. Around the metro area, there were always productions of A Christmas Carol to round things off. Comfortably, we thought there was something for everyone.
Apparently not. In a move that sent shockwaves through the whole community, the Wang Center chucked The Nutcracker out on its ear after last year's performances and replaced it with Radio City Music Hall's Christmas Spectacular road show, featuring the Rockettes and a glitzy Nativity. Holiday productions that had coexisted peacefully for years found themselves competing for audiences with the New York City behemoth, The Lion King, and each other. The Boston Pops had to reduce their concert dates; Christmas Revels reported lower ticket sales. Boston Ballet went begging for a new home for The Nutcracker, and after landing a deal with the newly refurbished Boston Opera House to stage it there beginning next year, found a temporary home in the Colonial Theater for the 2004 performances. Talk about a shakeup.
Boston Ballet rose to the challenge. The company mounted an aggressive fundraising campaign and Nissenen staged what he termed a "more intimate" reworking of the beloved Christmas ballet, scaling back sets, using fewer performers, and redesigning lights and costumes. Does it stand up against the legendary Wang Center version? Can it compete with all the other choices of entertainment this holiday season?
There are some changes that will make devotees of the traditional Nutcracker nostalgic for the Wang Center. Scenery has been minimized: blue cycloramas are used in place of elaborate backdrops for many scenes, and instead of the layers and layers of drops and legs that stretched back upstage like a Victorian valentine card, a smaller number of drops fly downstage (front), suggesting scenery. The wonderful scrim curtain effects are still there, however, allowing us to see through one scene into another, and less scenery actually focuses attention on the dancers themselves. One disappointment is the Christmas tree: it does grow, so high that only its gigantic lower branches remain visible, suggesting a tree that would smash through the theater's roof and rival a sequoia. However, although the enormous branches and ornaments frame the mouse battle beautifully and reinforce the idea that we're watching tiny rodents and toys, the growing effect doesn't quite come off. The only other problem is the women's costumes for the party scene. The governess, children, grandparents, and men are all dressed appropriately in 1840s German evening dress according to their ages and stations, but the female party guests arrive looking as if they had ransacked a trunk full of seedy saloon dresses from the second-act ballet of a road show of Oklahoma.
The rest of the costumes, however, have been improved. The Mouse King, heretofore one of the best-fed rodents who ever lumbered through a duel with the Nutcracker, is slimmer, less cute and much more agile. All the other costumes, which were looking tired last year, look crisp, fresh and colorful.
The most important changes are in the storytelling and dancing, and they are what make this year's Nutcracker a must-see. Nissenen has cleaned up the long and boring opening that featured dancers crisscrossing the stage as if they were hurrying home on Christmas Eve. Now we watch the mysterious Drosselmeier, high up in his workshop in the town clock tower with the workings of the clock behind him, finishing the Nutcracker he has made for his favorite niece, Clara. The scene carries us immediately into the story.
Cuts in the introductory music allow for more dancing in the party scene, and once again, the story is the important feature. Nissenen's choreography defines the characters and gives them more substance than they had in the past. Formerly portrayed as just a brat, Fritz is often blamed now for his sister Clara's mischief, so he becomes understandably angry and breaks her toy Nutcracker. In the dream sequence that follows, the party toys come back and haunt Clara, punishing her for her bad behavior and presaging the battle with the Mouse King. The party scene introduces another important element in this year's Nutcracker: magnificent and sparkling dancing that continues throughout the ballet.
At the end of Act I, Clara and the Nutcracker used to fly off in a snowstorm to the Palace of Sweets in a huge balloon which flew in out of nowhere. Now they fly away in a much smaller, but more logical and very effective conveyance: a lovely snowflake. The Nutcracker becomes the Prince who dances Act II's grand pas de deux with the Sugarplum Fairy instead of sitting uselessly on the sidelines. The stage is too small for his grands tours jêtés in the pas de deux, but what he cannot accomplish in horizontal leaps, he makes up for in vertical ones. A streamlined cast (including only 270 local children this year for the run) clears the stage of what sometimes looked like herds of humans.
Boston Ballet has never danced its Nutcracker so well. Everything makes for a tighter story line and allows the dancers to tell the story. They are so wedded to Tchaikovsky's incomparable score that the music is highlighted as well as their skill. This year's Nutcracker is indeed more intimate, but along with better dancing and a shimmering tale, everything we love is still there. There's still nothing more magical than Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker to express the Christmas season in Boston.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito