Saturday, December 7, 2013

The "new" Nutcracker dazzles again

The dancing snowflakes now drift through silver birches.

This city clings to its traditions - perhaps it even clutches them - and so it should have come as no surprise that Boston Ballet's retirement of its broad, popular production of The Nutcracker in 2012 was met with dismay in many quarters. Even now some people roll their eyes when I mention the glories of Robert Perdziola's stunning new sets and costumes.

How wrong they are - if you missed it last year, by all means go this Christmas. I have my quibbles with some aspects of the staging (don't I always?) but I have to admit the subtlety and sophistication of Perdziola's designs, and the true magic of the production's moments of transformation, again bowled me over. Indeed, the metamorphosis of Clara's Christmas tree into a glimmering pyramid of holiday promise may alone be worth the price of admission. And there are other wonders to behold: the Snow King and Queen now glide among a lustrous grove of birches - through which dancing snowflakes flicker and flit (at top); and the heroine's home opens up before us as if built of pages from The Nutcracker and The Mouse King, E. T. A. Hoffmann's original tale of 1816 (an era recalled by  the new costumes), which inspired the whole tradition.

There's also a postmodern, meta quality to Perdziola's vision at times - it plays as both pop-up storybook and dream-within-a-dream. The first memorable image is of Clara herself turning from a toy shop to face us, in a vaguely cinematic "close-up," that conjures a sense of reverie; and tellingly, tiny details of what she saw in that tableau persist throughout the ballet (various toys, for instance, crop up unexpectedly in later adventures). But other metaphorical gestures and gambits seem vaguer and more complicated than we care to ponder - chandeliers from the "Nutcracker Prince's Kingdom" (once "The Land of Sweets") extend out into the audience, for example, and the opening street scene is assembled almost too self-consciously before our eyes (and well before the music starts).

This leads to a loss of momentum here and there, but the most curious aspect of the new production (which struck me more powerfully the second time around ) is the way the décor sometimes moves in a separate mode of feeling from the actual dancing it showcases, particularly during the divertissements of the second act. Sensing that design and dance must move hand-in-hand, choreographer Mikko Nissinen has re-imagined much of the danced "action" to good effect: the opening act Christmas party is streamlined, and there are far more grown-up steps for Clara, cleverly suggested by a gift of toe shoes - which perhaps inspire the first stirrings of romantic feeling in her heart (the inventor Drossemeier now spins and lifts her in his arms occasionally, chastely illuminating subtexts of sexual awakening that I've always felt permeate The Nutcracker). This psychologically astute dramatization matches well Perdziola's subtle new imagery. And the dream-battle between the Nutcracker Prince and his rodent adversaries likewise has been more cleanly and coherently blocked, and makes more sense as drama - but alas, a few beloved gags are still absent, with no equivalent replacements, which may be fueling the last hard feelings about the reboot. (Indeed, there's even a new running gag about how much the old running gags are missed.)

But what strikes me now is that a few of the divertissements - the Spanish dance in particular - lack the sophistication of their new setting (a pleasure pavilion decorated, Tiepolo-like, by images of iconic dancers and their roles). Nissinen's choreography is all drawn from solid sources (he's a committed archivist, and his choices are always informed by traditions handed down from Petipa), but there's a subtle sense of repetition to his set-pieces (after a few years you realize the Flowers dance rather like the Snowflakes). Perhaps it's time to re-think some of these steps in the same way the sets have been re-thought.

Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga soar through their kingdom.  Photo: Gene Schiavone.

But at the same time it must be admitted that the technical level of the Ballet keeps inching higher and higher. The soloists on opening night for this dream-within-a-dream were themselves a dream team (Jeffrey Cirio, Misa Kuranaga, Sabi Varga, Lia Cirio, Lasha Khozashvili, Isaac Akiba) who have all entranced us in their parts before.  It was the corps that once again surprised, as they have in their every appearance this season - the Snowflakes were particularly pristine on opening night, and held the audience spellbound.

Although there were many spell-binding moments over the course of the evening. Sabi Varga has by now perfected the mix of spooky fun and sex appeal demanded of the toymaker Drosselmeier, and he delicately partnered young Eliza French as Clara, whose acting performance was sweetly and sensitively wide-eyed, while her dancing technique proved buoyantly pointed. The calmly self-possessed Max Pouanov meanwhile made a mature young leader of her little brother Fritz, and Sarah Wroth and Bradley Schlagheck even conjured (improbably enough) actual characterizations for their boring, benign parents.  Irlan Silva brought a sheen of exoticism to the Harlequin, while Whitney Jensen put her own smart spin on the ball-and-joint mechanics of his Columbine (here "Ballerina Doll").  And Paul Craig did yeoman duty in the lumbering giant bear costume (imagine kicking up your heels with something like fifty pounds on your head).

Of course Jeffrey Cirio was once more his dashing, swoon-worthy self as the Nutcracker Prince, and sensitively partnered Misa Kuranaga's exquisite Sugar Plum Fairy. But they faced serious competition from Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili as the Snow Queen and King; these two must have warmed to each other during La Bayadère, for something seemed to have melted in the hearts of their frosty monarchs - and thus their pas de deux was a model of gorgeously synchronous sympathy.

Among the later divertissements, newcomers Petra Conti and Alejandro Virelles proved sinuously striking in the Arabian dance, and Boyko Dossev had a ball hamming it up as Mother Ginger. Ashley Ellis made a commanding Dew Drop Fairy, while the Russian dance, as usual, brought down the house: Isaac Akiba, Robert Kretz and Paul Craig conveyed a hearty camaraderie, and by now Akiba's jumps brush the top of the proscenium, while his tours à la seconde whip by so fast you half-expect his foot to drill into the floor. The overall effect was of seemingly endless bedazzlement. This version now closes with Clara awakening, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, from a Christmas-Eve dream; which, to quote Shakespeare, only makes one cry to dream again.

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