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Arty-farty Nutcracker

Reuniting two separated siblings, opera and ballet, was Benjamin Millepied and Stéphane Lissner’s mantra. And so they did. The premiere of the extravagant double bill “Iolanta/The Nutcracker,” staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov, was a major highlight of the Paris Opera Ballet's 2015-2016 season. There wasn’t much left of the original 1892 version, though. Tcherniakov was much praised for endowing the two scattered works with a newfound unity, his “Nutcracker” responding to “Iolanta” in some ways.

Performance

Paris Opera Ballet's “Iolanta/The Nutcracker” with choreography by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Edouard Lock, Arthur Pita

Place

Palais Garnier, Paris, France, May 9-24, 2019

Words

Jade Larine

Paris Opera Ballet in “Iolanta / The Nutcracker.” Photograph by Agathe Poupeney / OnP

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Notably, the ballet mirrors the characters of the opera, clever but far-fetched. Tcherniakov’s vision matches Hermann Laroche’s, a highly respected Russian critic of the Imperial era, who believed that “Iolanta” and the “Nutcracker” were driven by the same creative force. Although the evening is by and large an aesthetic wonder, the message it conveys is barely groundbreaking (awakening to sensuality leads to the mourning of a lost innocence). More concerning, the ballet appears to be a poor illustration of the operatic art, with “The Nutcracker” lacking choreographic texture and depth. The revival in 2019 confirmed just that impression.

Thanks to a scenery trick, the sumptuous production of “Iolanta” is revealed to be a performance offered to Marie—heroine of “The Nutcracker”—for her birthday. The transition is easy, of course, and visually stunning. This is where the real fun begins. Three different choreographers were commissioned to give life to Marie’s journey to the harsh, disillusioned—and obviously erotic—world of adulthood. Arthur Pita, Edouard Lock and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui were looked to for fresh inspiration but they weaved a messy patchwork for Marie’s voyage of discovery, failing to illustrate Tcherniakov’s dark script and Tchaikovsky’s bittersweet score. It was later disclosed that no collaborative discussion among the choreographers had been engaged in, supposedly on purpose, in order to emphasize the contrasts between their different styles. It shows: the storytelling is undermined accordingly. Only the world-famous music and beautiful, evocative settings, can then set milestones for the audience.

Iolanta The Nutcracker
Marion Barbeau as Marie in “Iolanta / The Nutcracker.” Photograph by Julien Benhamou / OnP

This “Nutcracker” opens to a mid-20th-century bourgeois interior, where it is hinted that Marie is as benevolently oppressed and happily blind to the world outside as Iolanta (her operatic counterpart) was. Entrusted with the birthday scene, Pita designed a cheerful celebration, ranging somewhere between an idyllic, Norman Rockwell-inspired family gathering and an amateur end-of-year school play. The scene mostly relies on pantomime and musical-like choreography, too light on dance content to live up to the standards of the Paris Opera Ballet.

As Marie becomes infatuated with Vaudemont (yes, Iolanta’s husband), the good-natured party turns into a nightmarish confrontation. Gone are the mice soldiers: Marie is threatened by her own family who suddenly stutter an incomprehensible language: repetitive, staccato movements (Lock’s trademark). Emilie Cozette becomes a fierce mother, executing robotic arm gestures—a wink to Hoffman’s cursed dolls?—verging on the grotesque. The dancing is award-looking in the extreme. You feel saved by the bell when the madhouse explodes, leaving Marie alone in a spectacular post-war, debris-strewn scene echoing the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.”

Iolanta The Nutcracker
Marine Ganio and Jérémy-Loup Quer in “Iolanta / The Nutcracker.” Photograph by Julien Benhamou / OnP

Cherkaoui’s acrobatic yet beautiful pas de deux take over, a short reprieve before the nightmare strikes again, soon enough, with Lock’s out-of-place divertissements. Set in a creepy children's room populated with gigantic toys (PG-13 style) a group of deranged-looking women almost remind us of Charcot’s clinical demonstrations of hysteria, displaying evocative gestures, their dresses up on their thighs. Instead of picturing the emotional, erotic landscape of adolescence, the disturbed, rather than disturbing, the tableau oozes gratuitous provocation. Once again, Cherkaoui later endows this “Nutcracker” with one of its most romantic, poetic moments. His “Waltz of the Flowers” with couples slowly waltzing though the different ages of life remains one of the highlight of the evening. Coming not quickly enough, the ending seems to draw its inspiration from the final scene in Melancholia (Lars von Trier), until the heroine unfortunately shows up again, shattered on the ground with the pieces of her lost illusions. In French, we would say that this smells like déjà vu.

This arty-farty “Nutcracker” neither does justice to the musical masterpiece nor to the balletic art. In the ashes of such choreographic failure tough, sweet-faced Marion Barbeau looks fantastic, portraying every tableau with rich emotional nuances and, on top of that, lending her pristine dancing to the clumsiest moments. The ballet owes much, if not all, to the music and the dancers. In most prestigious theaters, such a corrupted “Nutcracker” would have been called heretic. But bear in mind that “The Nutcracker” isn’t traditional Christmas fare at the Paris Opera Ballet. Nureyev’s production is performed once every five years. Too kitsch, too cute, “The Nutcracker” can only be disregarded in Paris. Tcherniakov’s piece magics away the very essence of Petipa/Tchaikovsky’s ballet, to the point where no real “Nutcracker” is actually enlisted. Snobbery is at its highest ever. Close your eyes, listen to the spellbinding music.

Jade Larine


Jade is a Paris-based public official and dance critic who specialises in both Russian ballet and classical repertoire. In her early years, she lived in Ottawa and Washington DC but her interest lies in Russia now. Besides contributing to cultural media, in French and English, she carries out research on the choreographic transition at the Bolshoi Theater.

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