Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Lia Cirio takes flight in The Nutcracker.
The New York Times is currently fretting over the preponderance of Nutcrackers on our holiday stages, after the Washington Post's Sarah Kaufman contended that "The Nutcracker’s stranglehold is all but squeezing ballet dry.”
Which, after serious thought, prompts me to reply, "Oh, nuts to you, Sarah Kaufman."
Because I'd really hate to see what has happened to theatre happen to dance. The theatrical connection to tradition has been effectively destroyed, with essentially nothing to replace it but an embarrassingly self-promoting campus-politics vision of "progress." And as much as everyone insists that politics and aesthetics are always linked (and yes, they are), when one effectively replaces the other, it's obvious at once that something essential has been lost from an art form.
And tellingly, Kaufman's arguments are hokey in much the same mode as the social-worker idealism of so many theatre critics - that is when her claims aren't downright wacky. She seems to blame The Nutcracker, somehow, for the fact that so many leading ballet dancers in America are foreign-born. At the same time, however, the Christmas fantasy (according to Kaufman) is simultaneously stifling diversity. Okay. She goes so far as to say that, via Tchaikovsky and Petipa, "ballet directors are communicating some disturbing views: American dancers in general are somewhat second-best, and African Americans in particular are not part of their vision."
Right. Diversity versus The Nutcracker! European minorities bad, American ones good! Everybody to the barricades!
But isn't this particular line of pseudo-critical hokum faintly ridiculous? Of course Kaufman's right to wonder why we're not seeing as many African-Americans on our ballet stages as we are Latinos, Asians and other minorities (I've wondered the same thing myself). It's her yoking of this legitimate social question to The Nutcracker that's absurd.
And for the record, at Boston Ballet this year you can see a Cuban Sugar Plum Fairy and a Mongolian Drosselmeier and an African-American Fritz. That is if you don't catch an Asian Sugar Plum Fairy and a gay Cavalier. So stuff that in your stocking, Sarah Kaufman. If only our other entertainments were as easy to diversify as The Nutcracker!
The point is if your concern is recruiting more African-American, or just plain American, dancers into ballet, then the place to start is in the schools, in the training, and in access, not in the destruction of the form's cherished traditions - particularly one that, to be blunt, pays the bills for most everything else. And by "everything else" I mean the lively, forward-looking programming by the Ballet (which includes most of dance's leading new choreographers). Whatever Ms. Kaufman may say, we would probably not be able to see William Forsythe (a personal favorite of hers) or anything cutting edge in Boston without the funding provided by The Nutcracker.
And as deals with the devil go, few are as sweet as this one. Perhaps I'm alone in not finding The Nutcracker cloying, but I really don't; I enjoy it at some level every year. And the Boston Ballet model, which has at last settled into its new home at the Opera House, is dazzlingly sleek and diverting. The Ballet fine-tunes some section or another every season, and this time around the entire first act really hummed, despite being almost over-stuffed with complicated set-pieces and special effects. And once again I heard the same sounds from the crowd: the gasps from the kids as the giant Christmas tree began to inch skyward, and the coos from the parents when the little sheep joined the "Pastorale," and the pin-drop-silent awe as the snowflakes began to flutter through the Enchanted Forest. It's true the whole show is basically variations on sweetness and adorability - but be honest: does anyone really want to watch William Forsythe at Christmas?
The cast I caught (at a Sunday evening show) was unfailingly energetic, but several performances were truly noteworthy. Boyko Dossev once again brought a brilliant panache to Drosselmeier, who was spooky, dashing, and protective in just the right proportions. Isabelle Hanson meanwhile made a charming Clara, and Tyler Austin a fire-cracker Fritz, but perhaps Whitney Jensen's precision as Columbine eclipsed Jeffrey Cirio's as Harlequin. The ensuing battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King seemed streamlined and more crisply performed than it has in past years, and once we were in the Enchanted Forest, Megan Gray impressed as a delightfully glamorous Snow Queen (and made a handsome, charismatic couple with new principal Pavel Gurevich). In the Kingdom of Sweets, Lorna Feijóo was, as usual, perfection as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the second half's divertissements generally glowed with the energy of the Ballet's youthful new members. Only Luciana Voltolini and Isaac Akiba, however, really pulled away from the pack - Voltolini in the sinuous "Arabian" dance, and Akiba as the lead of the leaping "Russian" dance, a part he was frankly born to play.
And as the curtain fell again, as it does every Christmas, on the grand final tableau, I confess I thought to myself how wonderful it will be to see it all again next year. Not sure I want to go with Sarah Kaufman, though.