Making an annual visit to the New York City Ballet’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®” is like tuning into a balletic State of the Union address. This is the time of year when City Ballet asserts cultural and commercial dominance (it has the preeminent “Nut” in the marketplace) and company patriotism burns brightest (in advertising, anyway—just look at all those possessives and the trademark in the title). But though this oft-imitated production is copyrighted and tightly regulated, it is not inalterable. Like the Constitution, it is amendable and evolves with the times. Most of the changes have been positive: in recent years, the Tea costumes and choreography have been tweaked to be less offensive, and the Black women in the company now wear skin-colored tights and pointe shoes instead of pink. But sometimes there are less pleasant cutbacks to ensure fiscal solvency, as in last year’s use of teenagers instead of children to keep the cast, the production, and the troupe afloat (even so, half of the season had to be canceled for a Covid surge).
The kiddies are back this year, though the coronavirus threat still looms: ten dancers and two children tested positive on the morning of the show I attended, scrambling casting for the next few weeks. But even without Covid substitutions, “The Nutcracker” casting is adumbrative of leadership’s future planning. During the five-week run, many of the most senior dancers in the company are released to headline smaller “Nut” productions elsewhere, therefore City Ballet’s “Nut” is a perennial testing ground for up-and-comers. Every performance offers a look at rising talent; and scanning the casting charts each week is a decent predictor of trends. I am happy to report that last Tuesday, several of the company’s newest members dazzled in small roles, and the three Soloist women management is targeting for ascendance appeared more than ready.
Act II, where the meat of the dancing lies, was exceptionally strong. India Bradley made a suitably sassy debut in the Hot Chocolate dance opposite Davide Riccardo. Roman Mejia and KJ Takahashi were both great in their brief, whiz-bang roles leading the Tea and Candy Cane dances (which they alternate frequently). Mejia’s hang-time is particularly impressive in Tea, which is good because his backup dancers tried to pull focus. When do you ever walk out of the theater thinking about the two corps women in the Tea dance? They were Quinn Starner and Rommie Tomasini, and they are two to watch.
The trio of female soloists who helmed the Act II divertissements are all debuting as the Sugarplum Fairy later in the run, and it was obvious why. Emma von Enck was an excellent, piquant Marzipan. Emily Kikta, as Coffee, has made a real breakthrough lately. She was showstopping at the Fall Gala and her Coffee interpretation has blossomed too. In past years, she appeared a tad shy in this role, though she easily powered through the heavy jumps. This year, she invested in the poses and connective steps as well; she appears ripe for her first Sugarplum outing. Young phenom Mira Nadon has been ready out of the gate, and she gave lush value to every step as the Dewdrop. She also brought an air of mystery to the Waltz of the Flowers—a welcome change. She did not go with the standard, smiley interpretation. Instead, with her raven hair and occasional smirk, she resembled Elizabeth Taylor—imposing and arch.
In the grand pas de deux, Megan Fairchild and Joseph Gordon held down the fort as the lone principals in the performance. The Cavalier role is a bit of an afterthought in Balanchine’s “Nut,” which suited the nonchalant Gordon, who always looks like he just wandered in off the street, happy to step in. In other works, I often want him to force things a little more, to take command of a scene, but here his easygoing affability worked well. Fairchild was the picture of calm authority, for good reason: she is a veteran opening-night Sugarplum, and she held the honor for the “Nut” filming back in 2011. In fact, she has become the elder stateswoman of the troupe (only one current ballerina has been with the company longer)—an unlikely development given that she has never fit the stereotypical Balanchine ballerina mold. She is tiny, with short limbs and big feet, and she does not really dance the iconic Black and White ballets. But she imbues her slice of the rep with playful charm, a trait she carries into her side-projects, which include a delightful podcast and a self-help book.
Perhaps she is what Balanchine would have referred to as one of his “nuts and raisins”? As Toni Bentley writes in her memoir/history Serenade: “these were dancers who defied the parameters of the so-called “Balanchine dancer”—though he always denied there was such a thing.” There was—and is—but, thankfully, many aspects of that definition are evolving too. As Jenifer Homans makes clear in her recently published biography Mr. B, the traditional Balanchine ballerina was decidedly not a public speaker, author, or mother of three. However you want to classify her aesthetically, Fairchild’s brand of thoughtful, entrepreneurial professionalism has redefined what a career in City Ballet can encompass. It has also helped counterbalance the company’s ongoing turbulence in the press. Fortunately for the troupe, her morality is as solid as her technique. And though her Sugarplum is too safe and square, there is magic to be found in her serene pirouettes.
And pretty pirouettes are the point of Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.” More than anything else, his version touts ballet itself. His “Nut” doesn’t get bogged down with sexual awakenings or Freudian psychology. It is not even selling Christmas; it is selling ballet lessons. Consider that the first real dancing comes from the Party Scene dolls. Plotwise, these adult dancers portraying toys provide proof of Herr Drosselmeier’s sorcery, but the intrusion of ballet into the realm of pantomime and character dancing is the real wizardry. The Columbine doll sports the first pointe shoes to appear in the production, conflating ballet with magic right off the bat. (Apprentice Olivia Bell was a wonderful Columbine, effusive and crisp. Her joyful energy made her a standout in the Snow Scene as well.) Then the Soldier doll adds a much-needed jolt of adrenaline to the drawing room (Spartak Hoxha was very good—airy yet sharp). To see someone jumping and turning after all that pedestrian curtsying and skipping is a thrill. The rest of the narrative then builds upon this sturdy conceit: every magical being in the “Nut” enchants through pointework or highly technical dancing. And how does Marie redirect her mouse-infested nightmare? She saves herself and her beloved Nutcracker with a ballet slipper. This tiny emblem is the source of her power and the means of her salvation. It is no wonder that children flock to ballet classes after seeing “The Nutcracker.” I did. Ballet is proffered as a source of independence and self-expression, a way for young people to take the reins and manifest order and beauty in their own lives.