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A Child’s Christmas in New York

New York
David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center
11/28/2008 -  29, 30 November, and 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9*, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23, 24, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, January 2, 3
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Balanchine’s The Nutcracker
Maria Kowroski (The Sugarplum Fairy), Charles Askegard (The Cavalier), Sterling Hyltin (Dewdrop), Callie Reiff (Marie), Colby Clark (Fritz), Robert La Fosse (Herr Drosselmeier), Lance Chantiles-Wertz (The Nephew/The Nutcracker), Henry Seth (The Mouse King), Savannah Lowery and Amar Ramasar (Hot Chocolate), Dena Abregel (Coffee), Antonio Carmena (Tea), Daniel Ulbricht (Candy Cane), Tiler Peck (Marzipan Shepherdess), Christian Tworzyanski (Mother Ginger), Children of the School of American Ballet
New York City Ballet Orchestra, Faycal Karoui (Conductor)
George Balanchine (Choreographer), Rouben Ter-Arutunian (Scenery), Karinska (Costumes), Ronald Bates (Original Lighting), Mark Stanley (Lighting)

Christmas tends to bring out the child in all of us and no work of theater, music, or dance is more emblematic of the holiday season than Tchaikovsky’s immortal ballet, The Nutcracker.

It was not always so. George Balanchine chose the long-neglected work to be the first full length ballet performed by the New York City Ballet. It premiered in February 1954 and quickly became their biggest box office success. That success continues. Productions followed all over the world and the ballet is now a holiday fixture. In New York, almost daily performances extend over a five-week period.

Despite the ballet’s widespread popularity and diversity of interpretations, the Balanchine version is still the most famous and, arguably, the best. It is no surprise then that his name has become intertwined – literally – with the ballet, the title of which has been transformed into Balanchine’s The Nutcracker with a TM (trademark) superscript.

The venue for the production has also been renamed to give credit where it is due; the New York State Theater has been rechristened the David H. Koch Theater. Such rebranding to acknowledge the financial contribution of wealthy benefactors is very much the trend in New York these days: At the Metropolitan Opera, one may sit in the Mercedes Bass Grand Tier. At Carnegie Hall, one may attend a performance at the Weill Concert Hall. Unlike their government-funded European counterparts, American cultural institutions are heavily dependent on individual and corporate philanthropy. The Balanchine appellation is of course very different; it’s not about financial support but about his artistic stature and aesthetic contribution.

The Nutcracker was the third and last of Tchaikovsky’s great ballets, following The Sleeping Beauty by one year and Swan Lake by eighteen years. It is based on Alexandre Dumas père’s adaptation of a story by the German author, E. T. A. Hoffmann, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The choreographer Maurius Petipa, with the assistance of Tchaikovsky himself, further adapted the story to make it suitable for a ballet. There are two acts – the first gives us the story and the second showcases most of the dancing.

Act one has a lovely, festive atmosphere. The setting is a Christmas party in the home of Stahlbaum family, a mother, father and two children, Marie and Fritz. A magnificent Christmas tree dominates the scene. Guests arrive, as does Herr Drosselmeier, the children’s godfather. He’s a magician of sorts, but unfailingly kind -- not at all the frightening, demonic character from Hoffmann’s original story. That being said, Tchaikovsky’s music and the wonderful actor/dancer, Robert La Fosse, make it clear that Drosselmeier is strange and more than a little sinister. His Christmas gift is a wooden nutcracker which Fritz accidentally breaks and Marie cares for with great tenderness. Many children are at the party including Drosselmeier’s nephew, who later becomes the Nutcracker.

When Marie falls asleep in front of the Christmas tree, we leave the realm of reality and magical things begin to happen, all brilliantly embodied and foreshadowed by the change in the musical atmosphere. The Christmas tree grows and grows. A battle breaks out between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, assisted by his mouse henchman. Marie hits the Mouse King with a shoe and the battle is won. Tchaikovsky’s talents as a master of orchestration are on full display here. His scoring for the battle is wonderfully inventive.

With the death of the Mouse King, a spell has been lifted and the Nutcracker becomes a prince. As act one closes, he takes Marie on a journey through a forest that is transformed into a land of enchantment by the staging, the exquisite dancing and, of course, the music. The snowflakes dance a waltz in the midst of ever-thickening falling snow against the night sky.

Act two takes place in The Land of the Sweets, where Tchaikovsky’s musical inventiveness is on display. As a succession of delectable dancers whirl on and off the stage. The Sugarplum Fairy leads the Marie and her Prince to a throne from which they watch the dancing. The lead Candy Cane, Daniel Ulbricht, was marvelously athletic as he jumped through hoops to great applause. Sterling Hyltin as Dew Drop, was graceful, shimmering presence amidst the Waltz of the Flowers. The brief Chinese interlude was particularly delightful. And in the final pas de deux, Maria Kowroski, ably partnered by Cavalier Charles Askegard, was simply exquisite.

Under the baton of Faycal Karoui, the orchestra played with energy and panache. The child dancers, from the School of American Ballet, were beautifully prepared and extraordinarily charming.

Children filled the audience. They were clearly fascinated by the sight of little people much like themselves on the stage. There was much finger pointing and loud exclamations of delight. They were captivated by the beauty and the fun. As were the adults. At least for the duration of this magical ballet, the carefree delights of childhood were restored to us all.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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