American Ballet Theatre’s ‘Nutcracker’ choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky does a sure-handed job at knocking the classical edges off the last of the Petipa and Ivanov Russian Imperial ballets. It’s the opposite tack he took with his recent ‘Sleeping Beauty’ (also for ABT) seen in this theater earlier this year which restored old fashioned looking ballet to a work long overlaid with modern performance practice. Of the two I think his modernized ‘Nutcracker’ will fare better. Watching the action you instinctively feel a part of this world. His characters dance with technical abandon but they also seem to be holding a conversation while they do it. Gone is that sense of remoteness so often associated with the cardboard characters from 19th century story ballets. The uncompromising classicism is replaced with dancing imbued with freshness, humor, and a constant repertory of surprises.  And while the movement may riff off neoclassical impulses, the dance brand is clearly recognizable as Ratmansky’s.

This ballet (new for ABT in 2010) delivers an abundance of enchantment as well as a deeply felt humanity.The most striking rearrangement of the usual narrative is the mirroring of the young Clara and her Nutcracker Boy (he remains a young boy in this production after being transformed at the end of the battle scene) against the Nutcracker Prince and his Princess. They are seen together as an introduction to ‘Snow’ and again briefly before and at the end of the Grand Pas de Deux. The combination was charming but also genuinely moving. And Seth Koffler with his forthright performance as the Nutcracker Boy covers the sword play, dancing as a mechanical toy, and attentive partnering with the young Clara with natural, spontaneous flare.

Ratmansky 'Snow" ABT Nutcracker
Ratmansky ‘Snow” ABT Nutcracker

Ratmansky takes all the ballet’s big markers, Waltz of the Snowflakes, Waltz of the Flowers, and the Grand Pas de Deux, and remakes each into something new and spectacular. Snow turns icy and dangerous. Laced with clever steps, expressionistic postures, and drops to the floor, it is no longer just pretty dancing in a snow globe. Flowers, for all its silliness (there is a quartet of men suited up with full on bee attire), at times turns virtuosic with brilliant lifts and intricately designed ensembles. The crowning achievement is a Grand Pas de Deux which sweeps away designs of a classical finish and invests the dancing with a deep, personal feeling of communication. Organized around the traditional structure, it plays off musical flourishes and complex partnering but never wanders from the ultimate goal of making real people out of the participants. Both Marcelo Gomes and Gillian Murphy as the Prince and Princess brought the full measure of humanity to their roles as well as perfect dancing. Gomes especially, with his gracious and masculine partnering, made the final wedding scene seem almost inevitable.

Clara and Rats from BAM performances
Clara and Rats from BAM performances

The production comes with two well-balanced acts. All of the divertissements in Act II are fleshed out with conversational appeal. Ratmansky replaces the usual presentational formality with something far less formal and stagy.   Arabian turns the tables on the usual arrangement of a dominant male keeper and a quartet of submissive harem girls, making the whole thing into a kind of domestic soap opera. Laced with unexpected humor, it still made the most of the sensual and exotic connections to the music, while the five Nutcracker Sisters (the Mirlitons in other productions) graced their genteel dances with an air of friendly sibling competition. Especially memorable were the women from Flowers caught in a haunting motionless tableau behind the ironwork fence at the opening of the act, Jennifer Tipton’s eerie lighting for ‘Snow’, and all of Richard Hudson’s artful sets.

This is a production full of intricate detail. Now that the company is set to return regularly to Costa Mesa for its Christmas productions with the Pacific Symphony we will have more chances to see it and unlock what it has to offer. What people will love about this production is its newness, particularly the way the dancing itself looks. It may still be the old story, but it’s a giant step forward for the American Nutcracker.

(The reviewed production took place on December 10, 2015 at Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa. The Pacific Symphony and Southern California Children’s Chorus were conducted by ABT Music Director Ormsby Wilkins. The Music for Act I: still the best 45 minutes of music for dance and theater on the planet. Performances continue next week through Sunday in Costa Mesa.)


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