American Ballet's 'Nutcracker,' A Fairy Tale Missing Its Magic

Craig Salstein leaps to attention as the Toy Soldier in ABT's
Craig Salstein leaps to attention as the Toy Soldier in ABT's "The Nutcracker." (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Kennedy Center's vast Opera House stage just begs for a grand, sweeping "Nutcracker." One that really stretches out and moves, and, since this ballet appeals mostly to children, one that's also filled with animated, close-up action and immediacy.

American Ballet Theatre's production, which opened Tuesday, is not that "Nutcracker." The sets are eye-catching, the costumes, in most cases, pleasing; but its dance appeal comes in fits and starts. Its first act feels poky: The party at which our heroine Clara receives the prized nutcracker doll is a rather dull affair, the stand-around-and-sip kind of evening, among a singularly sour lot of folks. One shrewish female guest never stops sniping at another, and when godfather Drosselmeyer distributes gifts to the assembled children, one poor kid is left conspicuously empty-handed. This is an attempt at Stanislavskyesque "motivation," we're guessing; he's the one who later, in a fit of pique, breaks Clara's doll.

There is more dancing in the second act -- and on opening night, splendid star turns for Paloma Herrera and Ethan Stiefel as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. But any narrative coherence has by then been abandoned; young Clara, out of whose dream of devotion the rest of the story pours forth, is brushed aside until the very last notes.

The Kennedy Center has hosted this version of the holiday classic, created by ABT Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie, several times since its 2000 premiere here, and while McKenzie has improved it since that ill-conceived debut effort, it remains an uneven work. The chief problem is that while McKenzie has many clever ideas for dramatic staging and visual effects -- the Christmas tree grows especially magnificently, and there's plenty of wry humor in the battle scene -- he's just not enough of a choreographer to whisk the whole story together so you truly feel it as well as watch it. In truth, that's a formidable task. Many lesser productions by lesser troupes look perfectly sweet on their small stages, while the flaws in this particular account are magnified by its sizable venue.

That said, the dancers make the most of the material. Maria Riccetto was a waifish and lively Clara, a feathery-light and unaffected dancer one wished to see more of. Few of the other leading dancers had her technical polish; Sascha Radetsky, as the Nutcracker Prince, and the Snow Queen's Veronika Part had trouble in spots, though charm to burn. The best moment was worth the wait: Herrera's Sugar Plum variation, danced to the familiar tinkling of the celesta, which was never more suited to a ballerina. Here was a lesson in the expressiveness and delicate beauty of pointe work.

This ballet is a patchwork of highs, such as that one, and lows, such as the first act's Unicorn Doll (unique to this production), who prances onstage looking like My Little Pony in a gold thong. It's a hoot when a dancer dressed as a gingerbread boy is nibbled on by the big, bullying rats in the battle scene, but not so funny when the terrified rag doll, skirts and hair flying, is brutishly passed around from one rodent to another. (Spoiler alert: For its finale, Clara awakes on Christmas morning to the perplexing discovery that her formerly well-stocked doll cabinet has been emptied of every plaything but the little nutcracker. This is a happy ending?)

It may seem curmudgeonly to pick on ABT's "Nutcracker," but here are the reasons I do: For many in the audience, this will be the only ballet they ever see. It will be many a child's introduction to the art form. It takes up valuable real estate at the Kennedy Center, of all places. Should it be any less than first-class?

There are other, better versions of the ballet out there: The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago's rendition, which was performed here last year, is full of warmth and fantasy. It's hard to beat George Balanchine's version for its brilliant interweaving of dancing and play, and for the way each carefully wrought detail underscores the themes of familial security and childhood wonder. Five other companies perform it besides the New York City Ballet, which has made it a long-standing tradition at Lincoln Center. Would that one of them might be booked here, worked in around a home season, perhaps.

Here's a thought: Wouldn't it be a natural for the Kennedy Center-sponsored Suzanne Farrell Ballet to perform the Balanchine version? This would be a way for the center to put itself on the map in the holiday season in a meaningful way, and for some benefactor to make a splash with a gift that can be guaranteed eyeballs.

The Nutcracker continues through Sunday afternoon, with alternate casts.

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