American Ballet Theatre’s ‘The Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center


“Snowflake” dancers rehearse for American Ballet Theater's “The Nutcracker” at The Kennedy Center. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)
December 9, 2011

You could say American Ballet Theatre’s intriguing new production of “The Nutcracker” is all about appetites. Why else begin it in the kitchen, an unusual starting point for the ballet that traditionally brings its audience in by the front door, to the party in the parlor? Yet here we are in the servants’ realm, where amid the dangling sausages and cheese, and a cooking staff in giddy anticipation, a hungry mouse is on the hunt for crumbs.

When the action eventually shifts to the Stahlbaums’ parlor, we encounter another kind of hunger: the rushing, gushing, not-to-be-denied desires of little children for gifts. Appetites are further underscored as kids and adults are seen feasting around a table. All but one kid, that is: Clara, seemingly the only partygoer without food cravings, is preoccupied with her new Nutcracker doll.

And here is where the focus shifts to love.

Alexei Ratmansky’s version of “The Nutcracker” could be a case study in how to revisit an old text and create something new and alive from it. Of the many improvements he has made to the dusty tale, none is more powerful than the through-line of romance, which starts with Clara and her doll, continues as she dreams the beloved toy into a living prince and culminates in a pas de deux of real human consequence.

Ratmansky’s treatment premiered last year in New York and opened Thursday at the Kennedy Center, where it continues through Sunday. But longtime Washington ballet fans may feel they’ve seen some of it before. Indeed they have — back in 2003 when the Mariinsky Ballet performed a controversial, nightmare-tinged “Nutcracker” at the Opera House. That version, too, began in a kitchen hung with meat; its party guests feasted at a table groaning with food; and later, its Snow Scene turned menacing, with Clara nearly succumbing to the cold, as we also see in the current Ratmansky ballet.

Some of these notions date back to the original 1892 conception by Marius Petipa, and some to the E.T.A. Hoffmann story that inspired him. But guess what: The initial choreographer of that earlier Mariinsky production was none other than Ratmansky. Yet he left the project abruptly after disagreements with Mihail Chemiakin, an artist that Valery Gergiev, general director of the St. Petersburg company, brought in to write the libretto as well as create the design. (In an interview at the time, Gergiev told me he believed Ratmansky and Chemiakin had differed over interpretations of the music.)

That bizarre Mariinsky “Nutcracker” was more a design spectacle than a work of dance expression. But it contained the seeds of this rich new work for American Ballet Theatre. Ratmansky’s ideas about appetites, hunger and love (as well as a particularly Russian truth about the deadly dangers of snow) now exist in a full-blown realization. The result is a profound and poetic ballet, and also a funny and warm one.

Its tender core of romantic love builds toward the final duet between Clara and her prince, and there you hear how deeply Tchaikovsky believed in the romance, too. (Ormsby Wilkins conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.)

Ratmansky has swept away cliches and replaced them with characters who live, who are recognizable as real people. The children pout and careen about in herds. Girl fairies get distracted and flirt with the boy pages. The Arabian dance is led by a shirtless sheik with a harem of four amorous, scheming beauties who kick one another out of the way in a quest for his attention.

Drosselmeyer has a larger-than-usual role here, and you could ask for no finer interpreter than Victor Barbee, with his magnetic stage presence and superb comic timing. Mikaela Kelly, as young Clara, and Theodore Elliman, as the young Nutcracker, are enchanting student performers whose crisp execution and unforced, nuanced acting speak to promising futures.

A twist here is that young Clara is “transformed” into a princess in the second act, and the young Nutcracker is transformed into a prince. On Thursday, these roles were then danced by Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes, and in terms of meltingly beautiful technique and emotional depth, their partnership was one of the most moving expressions of a love affair I’ve seen on the stage.

Finally, this “Nutcracker” is one more affirmation of Ratmansky as an artist of seemingly inexhaustible powers, none more satisfying than his ability to charge ballet with the directness of speech and a truth all its own.

American Ballet Theatre performs “The Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Saturday at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 6 p.m., with cast changes.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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