Ballet lovers in the UK will probably agree with the view that Sir Peter Wright has made not just one, but two brilliant versions of The Nutcracker: one for The Royal Ballet, and one for Birmingham Royal Ballet. They may display more Victorian flair than Russian soul, but these are the Nutcrackers we usually long for during the Christmas season, with the captivating Hans Peter/Drosselmeyer backstory, the charming party scenes, epic Christmas tree transformations and even a giant snow goose (BRB). This winter, however, we had the opportunity to discover – in sunny California! – two versions that are new to us: Miami City Ballet’s production, which is a redesign of Mr B’s classic Nutcracker and Alexei Ratmansky’s for ABT, which returned for its annual residency at the impressive Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa.
So how do these North American versions compare to the UK or European Nutcrackers we know? There are quite a few differences to highlight:
Miami City Ballet – George Balanchine’s Nutcracker
Best for: Brilliant Snowflakes and Act 2 Divertissements
With swanky new designs by Isabel and Ruben Toledo, this update on Balanchine’s Nutcracker makes some very smart choices, such as the use of video projections and colourful designs (we are still in love with the rainbow-coloured Columbine costume). The biggest problem with Balanchine’s version, however, is the feeling that there’s a lot of theatre but not enough dancing in Act 1, as if Mr B. had saved all the ballet for Act 2. On the other hand, the characterizations of “Marie” and her Nutcracker prince (both children) are ideal, and they were vividly interpreted at MCB by Renata Adarvez and Erick Rojas.
This feeling of “not enough ballet” is forgiven by the time the Snowflakes appear: we gasp at the fast footwork, the beauty of Balanchine’s patterns, and Miami City Ballet’s corps de ballet didn’t disappoint us. The adorable pompom snow wands they carry are his homage to the original Mariinsky production and they still look so chic. The Act 2 divertissements are wonderful too. I usually find the Spanish/Chocolate and Arabian/Coffee dances to be interminable, but Balanchine makes them more energetic and involving, with faster choreography and plenty of jumping in the Arabian for instance. Our favorites, however, are the Peppermint Candy Canes (here energetically led by Kleber Rebello) and The Waltz of the Flowers with the irresistible, high-flying, Dewdrop fairy (Brazilian ballerina Nathalia Arja), certainly up there with the best Balanchine creations. The grand Pas de Deux (danced by Jennifer Lauren and Renan Cerdeiro), is a beautiful topper to an already gorgeous Nutcracker, but definitely not the only delight of the evening.
American Ballet Theatre – Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker
Best for: Christmas Party Shenanigans, Epic Mouse King Battle, Enchanting Pas de Deux
Of course the Ratmansky Nutcracker had to be the funniest and most bonkers of these versions. Act 1 is a complete gigglefest, with the mice taking over the kitchen in the prologue, led by a mischievous little mouse-with-an-attitude (Salvatore Lodi), and a grandmother who dances like Elaine from Seinfeld. We love the way Ratmansky has the children erupt onto the party scene. Their dances are less formal: they still move as a group, but look more authentically child-like. As with most Ratmansky canon, there’s plenty of individuality, with a Drosselmeyer who is eccentric and endearing (we loved how he mimed to Clara and Fritz that no, they could not have those expensive Columbine and Harlequin dolls). There’s also an impressive battle scene between the mice and the toy soldiers, one that truly shows the chaos caused by the pesky creatures, with Clara following every moment from a giant chair. Superbly staged and lit, the perspective of this scene and Clara’s horrified expressions are fit for a German expressionist movie.
In this version, the Sugar Plum Fairy could be a distant cousin of the Lilac Fairy from Sleeping Beauty: in Act 1 she is Clara’s nanny, and in Clara’s dream, she presides over celebrations with generosity, benevolence and a touch of the exotic (she wears a turban and a bright green and purple gown). Given the Sugar Plum is a nondancing role, the big pas de deux is performed by the Princess and her Prince, alter egos of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince from Act 1. In the performances we saw, these roles were danced by a heartwarming Sarah Lane and the brilliant Herman Cornejo, and by the perfect pairing of Gillian Murphy and Marcelo Gomes (incidentally, we are very saddened to hear this appears to have been his final performance with the company) the following evening. Although this staging is not perfect – the snow scenes are not as thrilling as they are in the Balanchine or Peter Wright versions, and the Christmas tree doesn’t quite take our breath away – Ratmansky has created a very original and colourful seasonal classic, one which is perfect for sunny California, and one which the children will love.
The Royal Ballet / Birmingham Royal Ballet – Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker
Best for: Growing Christmas tree, Production Values, Moving Drosselmeyer Story
We may have watched Sir Peter Wright’s productions of The Nutcracker many times, but Drosselmeyer’s quest to save his nephew from the curse never fails to move us. From the lavish party at the Stahlbaums, to its aftermath with the transformation scene – the Christmas tree, complete with shower of golden sparkles, growing in answer to Tchaikovsky’s score – plus the sublime duet between Clara and Hans Peter after the Mouse King has been defeated, this Nutcracker nears perfection.
Act 2 brings us to a land of sweets that is decorated with Marzipan frost, echoing the Christmas cake that we had seen at the Stahlbaum home in Act 1. Unfortunately, the Spanish and Arabian dances are a snooze, but we love the Mirlitons and the full Grand Pas de Deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince Cavalier (quite a contrast to Mr B’s production which doesn’t give a variation to the poor Cavalier). In the performance Linda caught this year, these were danced with warmth, grandeur and a sense of occasion by Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov. But the magic of this production is always the enchanting moment when – the Mouse King curse having been broken – Drosselmeyer finally reunites with his nephew Hans Peter just before the curtain comes down. An ending with so much heart.
What is your favorite Nutcracker version? Let us know below in the comments section. A happy new year to you all!