The Nutcracker

 

The Nutcracker ballet. Music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Choreographed by George Balanchine. Performed and filmed December 14, 2011 at the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center. Stars Megan Fairchild (Sugar Plum Fairy), Teresa Reichlen (Coffee), Daniel Ulbricht (Candy Cane), Ashley Bouder (Dewdrop),  Joaquín De Luz (the Cavalier), Colby Clark (Nutcracker, the Prince, and Drosselmeyer's Nephew), Fiona Brennan (Marie), and Adam Hendrickson (Drosselmeyer). Directed for TV by Alan Skog. Released 2016, disc has 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: B

The real name of this disc is George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. But to keep my Alphalist easy to use, I just call it The Nutcracker. This is a record of what may be the most important ballet production ever created in the United States: the Balanchine Nutcracker that premiered in 1954! I was a high-school student at that time. Like most people in my county I think, I was unaware that there was any ballet at all in America. The Balanchine Nutcracker was a huge success. It spawned the Nutcracker craze that is so evident now at Christmas with every community center in the land throwing its own version and larger towns hosting 5 or 6 different versions! Millions have seen the Balanchine show in New York. This 2011 recording was telecast by PBS on December 2011 to millions more and the show got an Emmy Award in 2012.

After Balanchine's death in 1983, the rights to all his work passed to a foundation that is organized to preserve the authentic Balanchine style. This guarantees that what you see in this video is pretty much the same as what everyone else has seen for the last 63 years! Robert Greskovic, America's most well-known ballet critic, devotes 19 pages of explanation and comments to this production in Chapter 3 of his book Ballet 101 (Limelight Editions 2005). And Greskovic, on December 19, 2009, gave it another glowing review in the Wall Street Journal. Rob Maynard, writing (2016 I think) for the MusicWeb International website, gives this Lincoln Center at the Movies film a favorable review also.

Still, I have reservations.  This was shot in 1080i for television, which means it may have started with stereo sound only. But a surround sound recording could also have been made, so the 5.0 dts-HD Master Audio could be authentic. I could have excluded this as legacy material. But because of the historical importance of this show, I'll give this video the benefit of doubt and review it.

This is the most intensively choreographed version of the Nutcracker that we have in HDVD. This you can see in the first screenshot below where the parents and the children are all lined up in perfect formations. All our other Nutcrackers have a more natural, relaxed feel about them that's closer to what a real Christmas party would look like:

In particular, the Balanchine children are amazingly well-drilled. This is only possible because the New York City Ballet has a large School of American Ballet with eager students of all ages who work, I suspect, year-round on this production:

Below is a closer shot of the parents with Gramps and Grandma in the lead:

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Most modern Nutcrackers have a comic Grandfather's Dance with the old gent stumbling around all but breaking his neck. No such foolishness with Balanchine:

What you see next below is the first American Nutcracker Christmas show put on by Uncle Drosselmeier (Adam Hendrickson). It's a nice show, but many other directors since then have had opportunity to up the ante with an even more spectacular party scenes:

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But it would be hard to top these adorable girls cuddling their dolls:

The young man is Drosselmeier's nephew who later becomes the Nutcracker (Colby Clark). Marie Stahlmaum (Fiona Brennen) does a great acting job of acting out a young girl just starting to catch on. Her friends revel in their first session of gossip:

This Nutcracker looks a bit outdated:

But alas, the fight going on looks more like a Battle with the Purple Eggplants than an action against rodents. I guess in 1954 a fat Mouse King with seven heads looked scary. But don't give this video to any young man in your life today. One look at this and your young man will thereafter forever view you with pity and sad disdain for the nincompoop that you are. So now we see the downside from the having the Balanchine pieces protected by the Foundation. Without updating, each piece is at risk to gradually becomes a museum and then, finally, an arcane oddity:

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The battle is over. Now Marie will enjoy for a while the life of a Princess. The Prince (who was disguised as the Nutcracker) is the victor and the crown of the Mouse King is his gift to the Princess:

The royal couple traverse the Land of Snow on their way to the Land of Sweets. Balanchine was Russian born and trained, which explains the cotton-ball pom-poms:

Balanchine opens his Act 2 (in the Land of Sweets) with 12 living Russian icons:

Below is the best shot I have of the scenery for the Land of Sweets. In 1954, I think Big Sugar had a degree of clout we can't image today. I wonder if Big Sugar underwrote this ballet to get this Pantheon of Sugar as a product placement stunt. But then I note the Russian Nutcrackers also for feature elaborate orgies of confection. Well, returning to the story, here's a heroine's welcome for Princess Marie, who saved the Prince from sure death by hitting the Eggplant King with her shoe:

In a long and authentic-looking mime session, the Prince relates the story of the Battle with the Eggplants:

All the character dances that follow now look pretty tame compared to the today's HDVD competition:

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But there is still a lot of beautiful choreography here to admire:

Wow---the flowers form a flower (Waltz of the Flowers):

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Balanchine has his children stay the ages they are, and there is no romance here other than what is revealed by the choreography of the dancers entertaining the Prince and Princess.  Next below is the "step" where the Sugarplum Fairy (Megan Fairchild), on point, gets slowly dragged across the stage by her Cavalier (Joaquine De Luz). I didn't know this was possible! According to Greskovic (Ballet 101, p. 269), the ballerina somehow has located a tiny piece of sheet metal on the bottom of her point to reduce friction with the floor!

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The end of the Nutcracker with a pas de deux "fish-dive":

So there you have it: fine historical choreography coupled with an ultra-conservative story line and an aging, musty mise-en-scène. I made a Ballet Wonk Worksheet for this video. A respectable 72% of the video clips show the whole bodies of the dancers, but the too-fast pace 7.3 seconds per video clip drags down the video content. It's too bad: had Alan Skog made longer clips, he could have substantially improved the disc. For more on this, see Footnote 2 to our special article on the best dance and ballet titles.

The New York City Ballet Orchestra plays well with Clotilde Oncanto conducting. The star dancers are fine, but none of them seem particularly outstanding to me when compared to the leads in the big European ballet companies. The large corps of adults and kids supports well. The keepcase booklet is full of credit names and thanks for foundation support, but little useful editorial content.

If you will check out our Alphalist, you will see now (March 2017) four Nutcrackers with A+ to B+ grades that would probably be more enjoyable for most families today than the Ballanchine report. But because of the special place this production has in life of ballet in the United States, I give it a B grade and the designation.

(I haven't found a worth-while YouTube clip about this video.)