This is decidedly not your mother’s “Nutcracker!” Sure, there’s that big, beautiful Tchaikovsky score—played by the Monte-Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra under the deft baton of Nicolas Brochot—as well as a little girl called Clara (an enchanting Anjara Ballesteros), who dreams that her toy soldier will one day be her main squeeze (Stéphan Bourgond). But as for Drosselmeyer, this is where any resemblance to those many “Nutcrackers” of Christmas Past ends.
He is actually a she; a fairy, to be more precise, albeit a dazzling one sporting more glitter than can be found at a drag queen’s ball. As danced by Bernice Coppieters, muse and wife of Jean-Christophe Maillot, she is beauty personified, holding forth over what turns out to be a twenty-year retrospective of the company (hence the word, “compagnie” in the work’s title), the duration Maillot has been director of the renowned troupe.
And glitter ruled, not only on stage, but in the audience, as well. Among the bejeweled, sold-out crowd of 1,800, were the principality’s reigning Prince Albert II, his new(ish) wife Charlene, and Princess Caroline of Hanover, who, as the daughter of the late Grace Kelly, carried out her mother’s love of the art form by founding Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in 1985. Creating this “Nutcracker” both as an homage to the Princess—because, admit it, without her royal support, Monte Carlo, with its storied dance history, including home to Diaghilev’s original Ballets Russes, might merely be a seaside gambling mecca for the 1%—and to celebrate some of the 30 works he choreographed in those two decades, Maillot served up quite a terpsichorean mash-up.
Included were scenes from the dancemaker’s “Cinderella” (1999) “La Belle (Beauty),” from 2001, 2005’s “Le Songe (The Dream),” and “Romeo and Juliet” (1996). As Maillot had choreographed his first “Nutcracker” in 2000, originally setting it in a circus, this cast of some 50 stunning dancers also included clowns, whip-brandishing lion-tamers and a Segway-riding ringmaster, Puck (Jeroen Verbruggen , also the titular Nutcracker), who, when he wasn’t zooming around the stage on his floral-encrusted scooter, exhibited jubilant jumps and manic energy that, if bottled, could fuel Monaco’s famed Grand Prix race. The Belgian-born dancer’s antics also included nods to Al Jolson and early cinematic moves (ecstatic dancing, anyone?), and the occasional cartwheel, all executed with balletic grace, charm and brio.
There were also references to being a dancer and maintaining a company. With Chris Roelandt serving as the Father/Director of the company, and the eminently watchable Mimoza Koike as the Mother/Choreographer of said troupe (think Dr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum with pointers), barre work was on view, with drills and corrected positions part of the mix. And what’s a “Nutcracker” without a take on, of all things, George Balanchine’s “Serenade” from 1934, the first American dance the Russian made in his adopted homeland. This scene, another stately mash-up, featured the orchestra playing Tchaikovsky’s familiar opening chords to his Serenade for Strings, with the women wearing—not pale blue Romantic tutus but the shorter, white ones of Mr. B’s “Concerto Barocco”—while a portrait of the master himself was situated on the floor near the rear of the stage.
But not for long, as a boy in a giant bubble ball supplanted the neo-Balanchinean action by rolling himself around the stage in circus mode before the prop deflated. Pour quoi pas, as Drosselmeyer, continuously flanked by Guardian Angels—the exuberant brothers George and Alexis Oliveira, who, at various times donned corseted overalls and antlers—watched over her and the others. Meanwhile, Clara, playing with her miniature dollhouse/theater, suddenly discovers her toy magically growing into a giant playhouse.
It is, after all, this love of theater that captivates Maillot, who has again assembled a crack team, including dramaturgy by Jean Rouaud. Philippe Guillotel’s fabulous costumes range from Vegas-like glitz to animal-printed leotards, Dominique Drillot’s lighting is evocative, and Alain Lagarde’s set design, which includes rows of make-up tables, a costume rack and a picture of Nijinsky as Faun, all make for a sumptuous production. One that also means snow, because a first-act ending “Nutcracker” without snow would be unforgiveable. Ah! Maillot doesn’t disappoint, bringing the curtain down on a world of white, all the better to ready us for further dreamtime.
With act II comes Maillot’s fantastical interweaving of classic tales: Ballesteros takes on the roles of Cinderella, Beauty and Juliet, her acting skills equal to her heartfelt dancing: Always maintaining a lovely line, she is the picture of fluidity, her articulation also sharp, and, together with Bourgond, who performs as not one, but two Princes and a Romeo, they make a captivating couple. His partnering is regal, not haughty, sincere and, well, tinged with sweetness. And talk about a grand pas (de deux): Ballesteros and Bourgond’s contains a lip-lock to end all lip-locks, breathing unbridled eroticism into Tchaikovsky’s dramatically soaring music. Also: Just when you thought it was safe for Ballesteros to leap into her man’s arms, Maillot does an about-face, having the male dive under and through his lady’s legs.
Other notable performances: Francesca Podini and Noelani Pantastico made for wonderfully ugly stepsisters; Maude Sabourin proved a noirish Carabosse; Lucien Postlewaite shone as Fritz, here a future ballet étoile; and the marvelous Gaëtan Morlotti, a company mainstay since Maillot became director, demonstrated his pliant Romeo, albeit in puppeteer fashion.
Befitting the luxurious principality that is Monaco, Maillot then pulled out all the stops in the work’s finale. Think Folies Bergère mixed with a dash of Liberace, Cirque du Soleil and rampant zaniness, where confetti came shooting out of cannons and colorful paper flakes blanketed the audience. An extravaganza of chic dance and beloved music, all bathed in a symphony of colors, this “Nutcracker” is stamped, most of all, with love.