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A Tree Grows

Watching George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” the other night at New York City Ballet, I was struck, once again, by the sense of balance it both portrays and embodies. The clear narrative exposition of the first act is balanced by a lack of story in the second; supernatural undertones are contrasted by a welcoming, shadowless brightness; the “realism” of childish behavior (tantrums, sibling rivalry, fear of the unknown) meets its match in the good manners and idealized behavior of children, adults, and denizens of the make-believe world of the Kingdom of Sweets.

Performance

New York City Ballet: “The Nutcracker”

Place

David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, NY, December 5, 2023

Words

Marina Harss

Willow McConnaughy and students from the School of American Ballet in New York City Ballet’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

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With his savvy theatrical sense, Balanchine ruptured this balance at a few chosen moments, bringing in an unbridled, almost inexplicable emotion, as when Marie (the beautifully unmannered Willow McConnaughy) rushes back to the parlor to check on her injured nutcracker doll after everyone has gone to bed. Here, Balanchine interpolated the violin entr’acte from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Its soaring, pining melody introduces a very adult, turbulent note to this otherwise cozy first act. Until now, deeper emotions have only been hinted at.  In this scene all the fears and troubles of an otherwise happy childhood tumble out, intimations of the inevitability of suffering and loss to come in adult life. Marie rushes in, takes the nutcracker into her arms and tends to him like a sick child, before falling asleep with him on the couch. As the violin melody reaches its highest notes, testing the very edge of its range, Drosselmeier, the godfather who is also a magician, gently lifts her arm, repairs the toy/talisman, and places him back in her arms. By that point, by some mysterious confluence of musical and emotional suggestion, your heart is in your throat. 

Then comes all the rest: the disproportionate, Cabinet of Dr. Calegari-like growth of the tree, the battle, the near-death encounter of the nutcracker and the mouse king, Marie’s courageous deployment of her little white slipper. Then, more magic. The two children walk off into a dark, snowy forest, hand in hand, she still missing one slipper, to music that has the slow, awe-inspiring gravity of a voyage into the unknown. This introduces the ballet’s first moment of real balletic fireworks: the snowflake waltz. Here, the audience is dazzled by a combination of speed and precision, accompanied by an unreasonably heavy snowfall, billowing in from all directions. No wonder the dancers complain of getting these tiny pieces of confetti lodged in their eyes, their mouths, their hair. But the effect is thrilling. 

Willow McConnaughy and Theo Rochios in New York City Ballet’s production of “George
Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Understandably, given that the company performs “The Nutcracker” dozens of times during the holidays, not every performance offers the ideal version of Balanchine’s balanced construction. I have seen many an uninspired “Nutcracker.” But the evening of Dec. 5 came as close to the ballet’s full potential as I have seen it. Not only were there no mishaps, but the early scenes at the Stahlbaum’s Christmas party felt alive (not always true) and filled with warmth. Little details, like Olivia Bell’s clear pleasure in partaking in the parlor dances, popped. Playing the fun-loving grandmother, she cheekily flirted with grandpa, Andres Zuniga, tempting him with her shoulders. Sean Suozzi was a refined and benevolent Drosselmeier, without the edge some interpreters add to the role. (He did not spin grandma around and around, causing her to feel faint, for example.) The children looked precise but not overly rehearsed, a difficult balance. Theo Rochios, an eleven-year-old enrolled at the School of American Ballet who danced the role of the nutcracker boy/prince, was touching in his seriousness, his care for Marie, and his carefully-placed relevé. It’s too bad that the lighting in the all-important transformation scene, in which his nutcracker costume is snatched away revealing a small young boy in a pink suit, was ill-timed and overly muted. It stole some of Rochios’s thunder. The snowflakes danced with precision, through-body-energy, and speed, without looking rushed. The orchestra, under Andrews Sill, kept a brisk, but not heartless, pace, making the first act feel like a constantly-moving, seamless whole.

In the second act, which contains most of the dancing, the casting for each of the numbers in the divertissement—dances related to a type of candy and a related nationality—was mostly apt. Olivia McKinnon was an impeccable Marzipan à la française, with pin-prick pointework, strong hops on one toe, and well-executed gargouillades, a jump in which each lower leg traces a little circle in the air. Davide Riccardo was a dashing Spanish dancer in Hot Chocolate, partnered by India Bradley, who has an unfortunate tendency to look down as she dances. Gilbert Bolden III now owns the part of Mother Ginger, a gender-reversed role danced on stilts in a gigantic 18th century dress with panniers. He has fully embraced the role’s drag accents, primping and preening in the background as the little pulcinellas dance at his feet. Yes, he steals some attention away from them, but his interpretation projects such warmth and delight (in himself and in the children) that you instantly forgive him.

Ashley Hod in New York City Ballet’s production of “George Balanchine’s The
Nutcracker.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

True, Daniel Ulbricht, one of the company’s top jumpers, looked rushed and a little forced in the Candy Cane dance, created by Alexander Shiryaev for the original “Nutcracker” that premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892. It is the dance that Balanchine himself performed when he was a young dancer in St. Petersburg, taught to him by Shiryaev himself, who also recorded it in an early form of film animation (which you can see online!). The dance is a direct link to the ballet’s origins, and to Balanchine’s childhood. There are other quibbles. The pseudo-Arabian “Coffee” number, a tongue-in-cheek, midriff-baring hoochie-koochie Balanchine added “for the fathers,” is now performed without a hint of sultriness, presumably in order to avoid offence. Alexa Maxwell did her best, emphasizing the dance’s sly musicality, with little finger cymbals punctuating each pose. But without its kitsch sensuality, the solo falls flat. Ditto, the tea dance, which has been rid of its culturally insensitive elements, revealing a fundamental choreographic vapidity. Given that the company now has two resident choreographers, perhaps something could be done about this. To be fair, the split jumps that are the dance’s main feature were well executed by KJ Takahashi.

The ballet’s star turns are the dances for the Sugarplum Fairy (and her cavalier), and Dewdrop, performed here by Indiana Woodward and Ashley Hod, who débuted in the roles in 2015 and 2014 respectively. Each has a very definite style. Hod is taller than the usual Dewdrop, and less voluptuous in her use of the body, more erect, less windswept. But I was quickly won over by the crisp, almost unstoppable energy of her technique. And what a jump! The diagonal of jumps with one leg tracing a circle in front of her actually made me gasp. Ditto the jumps with one leg tucked under, the other extended forward, like an arrow.

Indiana Woodward and Anthony Huxley in New York City Ballet’s production of “George
Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” Photograph by Erin Baiano

Woodward was warm, engaged, bright, with relaxed phrasing, sparkling eyes, and energy that reached through her back and arms all the way to her fingertips. She looked, reacted, felt, and projected enjoyment, brightness. Her phrasing in in the opening solo was delicate, lively, punctuated by small contrasts, her quick, sharp lower body softened by a warm, pliant use upper body. Her pas de chats, which pop up with a little pouf at the top, are a particular delight. Joined by Anthony Huxley in the climactic pas de deux, the two created an impression of joy and delight, each balance or promenade seemingly springing from an internal sense of mutual understanding. On his own, Huxley danced with his usual elegance of movement, gliding, almost flying, in the short solo’s many airy steps.

As with all good performances, the finale came all too soon. Before you knew it the two children were headed back home on their magical sleigh, led by two white reindeer, sent off enthusiastically by the whole cast. The reason we keep coming back to “The Nutcracker” is precisely this. As with any ritual, the ending is a foregone conclusion. The joy and satisfaction come from seeing each element shine on its own, and as part of a greater whole. 

Marina Harss


Marina Harss is a dance writer in New York, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker Magazine, as well as to Dance Magazine and Fjord Review. She is the author of a book about the choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, The Boy from Kyiv, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 2023.

comments

MARINA HARSS

What a lovely comment, dear Martha! Here’s to the holidays!

Martha Ullman West

A terrific review: Harss puts us in the theater with her, and made this seasoned (and how!) Nutcracker watcher wish she had been there. The review is a gift we can put under our own Christmas trees, metaphorically speaking.

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