Nutcracker in Pastels for a Florida Christmas
Kravis Center for the Performing Arts
12/29/2021 - & November 24, 26, 27, 28 (Washington, D. C.), December 10, 11, 12 (Fort Lauderdale), 16, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26 (Miami), 30 (West Palm Beach), 2021
George Balanchine (choreography), Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (music)
Miami City Ballet Orchestra, Gary Sheldon (conductor)
Miami City Ballet Soloists & Corps de Ballet
Ruben Toledo (sets), Isabel Toledo (costumes), Wendall K. Harrington (projections), James F. Ingalls (lighting)
For American audiences, hardly anything could be as cliché as The Nutcracker, the fairy tale Christmas ballet set to all-too-familiar music by the Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Composed in 1892, it adapted the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King as it was itself retold by the French author Alexandre Dumas. The gist of the plot, which Tchaikovsky and his collaborators simplified, opens with a Christmas Eve tree decorating party that is turned in a supernatural direction by an enchanted toy nutcracker. Beloved by Marie, a brave little girl who defends it from invading mice, the nutcracker is revealed to conceal a prince who takes her to his magical Land of Sweets, guarded in his absence by the Sugar Plum Fairy. After a ceremonial presentation of delicacies from far-flung parts of the world, Marie and the Prince are enthroned together over the kingdom.
Ironically, it is really only in America that The Nutcracker – a Russian ballet based on a French interpolation of a German fairy tale – has become part of what passes for a national canon of high culture. In Russia, the ballet was poorly received by critics who were put off by its fantastical plot and heavier concentration on ensembles and child artists at the expense of star dancers. The prima ballerina, whom Russia’s ardent ballet fans would turn out to see with greatest interest, does not appear until the pas de deux late in the second half. It did not help that The Nutcracker was conceived and initially performed as the second part of a double bill introduced by Tchaikovsky’s short opera Iolanta. In Soviet times, a ballet set at Christmas and driven by magic offended dour atheistic communist sensibilities. Tchaikovsky’s orchestral suite of his ballet’s most memorable music gained some popularity, but stage productions remained sporadic in Russia and abroad until the 1940s, when a series of American dance companies put it on.
Christmas never went out of fashion in America, and the ballet’s love plot complemented enduring American affinities for love stories that arise from extraordinary rescues and change fates. Even the broad American masses who have no other knowledge of classical music readily recognize melodies from The Nutcracker, usually showing their recognition with a rosy familiarity that eludes them when confronted with almost any other piece of music. The New York City Ballet staged it in a production by the Russian-trained Georgian dancer and choreographer George Balanchine in 1954 and reprised it in every season until the Covid-19 pandemic brought all live performances to a halt in 2020. It was, of course, planned for that year and resumed this season, though the omicron variant has caused cancellations of some performances.
The Nutcracker has become so pervasive in nationwide ballet programming that some companies rely on it for as much as 40 percent of their annual revenue, while expecting most other productions to lose money. American dance critics have long bemoaned its weighty presence in the repertoire, alleging that it overshadows innovation and stunts the art form’s potential for development in an American idiom. More recently, “woke” critics, who police cultural works for politically incorrect content, have objected to the ballet’s brief portrayals of Arab, Spanish, and Chinese characters, finding them stereotypical and demeaning.
No such trouble challenged Miami City Ballet, arguably North America’s finest dance company, which presented the production in an innovative outdoor format in 2020. Featuring The Nutcracker as its first live production this season, it presents Balanchine’s choreography in a traditional but tropically hued production with sets by Ruben Toledo and costumes by Toledo’s late wife Isabel, both nationally-recognized Cuban-American designers who teamed up for the project in 2017. Stylized projections by Wendall K. Harrington added a kind of old-time animation feel to communicate changes of scene and mood. Child performers perform masked, while performance venues generally require a negative Covid test or, since Florida state law forbids vaccine mandates, voluntary display of full vaccination status.
The revival was presented in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and on tour in Washington, D.C. before arriving for four performances in West Palm Beach. The first performance in Florida, given in Fort Lauderdale on December 10 and billed as “Nuts for Heroes,” was dedicated to essential pandemic workers and first responders and offered 1,000 free tickets, which were rapidly claimed by an eager audience.
Colorful and vividly danced, the first Palm Beach performance drew a near sell-out crowd staffed by the expected upper and upper middle-class parents and grandparents with small children in tow. The company’s website dutifully provided a whole program of accompanying children’s activities. Their enthusiasm knew few bounds. Multiple set pieces were interrupted by applause, sometimes more than once.
The Nutcracker requires a cast of over a hundred dancers and is very much the ensemble piece that its initial Russian critics derided. Nevertheless, Miami City Ballet’s stratospheric standards have created a seamlessly talented team that delivered a memorable performance. Among the soloists, Jennifer Lauren’s Sugar Plum Fairy was danced with a lithe delicacy that captured the sweetest parts of fantasy. Her cavalier, Renan Cedeiro, accompanied her with perfect coordination and muscular sweeps. The young couple emerged in fine relief thanks to the talents of Allegra Dacquino Richerson and Dominick Scherer. Gary Sheldon conducted an engaging performance.
Paul du Quenoy