'The Nutcracker'

Fall Arts Preview: Sarah Kaufman on 'The Nutcracker'

Gabriella Yudenich in the Pennsylvania Ballet's take on "The Nutcracker," slated for a Kennedy Center run.
Gabriella Yudenich in the Pennsylvania Ballet's take on "The Nutcracker," slated for a Kennedy Center run. (2007 Photo By Erin Baiano -- Paul Kolnik Studio)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 13, 2009

Each year, for me, "The Nutcracker" casts its long shadow over the fall dance season, darkening every anticipatory delight with the looming torture of coming up with something fresh to say about the ballet equivalent of meatloaf. And this, at the eleventh hour of a busy season when Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and my mother's birthday come together in a trifecta of distractions that, to be honest, are more compelling than the dancing of slender snowflakes and plump rats, no matter how cute.

To you, dear reader, "The Nutcracker" may be a cherished tradition, an essential part of your holiday revelry, a way to introduce that special child to the beauty of ballet, live theater and the sweetness of Christmas before it became a consumer imperative. And long may it go on as all those things, because the enduring popularity of this ballet helps give companies that perform it the funds for their less marketable programs.

But despite its considerable pluses for the rest of the world, to me "The Nutcracker" is a chore. Oh, the odd production may turn out to be a less strenuous chore than the others, but they all present the same professional difficulty of drawing critical inspiration from a well that has all but run dry. Not counting my own childhood encounters, I've attended a handful of "Nutcrackers" just about every year for more than two decades. That's a whole lotta Tchaikovsky. (As I write this, the insufferable cheer of the first act's march has begun toot-tooting in my head, so pardon me if I pause periodically to scream.) I spend 10 months of the year trying to get those tunes out of my mind, only to endure the whole thing several times over when the season's more interesting programming gives way to assorted nonprofessional ballet school versions, the Washington Ballet's American history-themed production (Dec. 10-27 at the Warner Theatre) and whatever top-tier production is booked at the Kennedy Center Opera House. (This year it's the Pennsylvania Ballet performing George Balanchine's version, Nov. 24-29.)

Don't get me wrong; each of these productions is sure to offer its own rewards. The school performances are often the most authentically charming. The Washington Ballet's run, choreographed by Artistic Director Septime Webre, is one of the finer examples I've seen of spinning the ballet forward without mucking up its wise commentary on family dynamics and the knotty process of growing up. And Balanchine's version offers both purity of style and sophisticated fealty to tradition.

But meatloaf is meatloaf, whether it comes out of Julia Child's kitchen or anyone else's. It feels like I've reviewed 194 "Nutcrackers," and while some are better than others, they all consist of the same basic ingredients, tell the same basic story, use the same music and, by and large, feature the same choreography or some reasonable facsimile. Of course, it's perfectly understandable that ballet companies don't stray too much from the 19th-century original; it's comfort food. And so each year I search for something new to say about the ballet, some new angle that will make a review of an old chestnut relevant for the reader.

I'm especially compelled to think long and hard about any "Nutcracker" review because so much rides on it. The ballet is of vital economic importance to its performers. It embodies, for many, the public perception of the art form as a vehicle for expressing society's values. (Among them, the primacy of beauty, order and kindness, and the dependable refuge of family. Also, the sanctity of happy endings.) For many audience members it may be the first -- and only -- ballet experience. All these viewpoints, as well as my own impression, serve as backdrop and context for my review.

I'll factor in what I look for in any performance. In addition to fundamentals such as the clarity and quality of the dancing, the production values, the musicians or sound system, I'm looking for truth above all. Does the acting feel real, and does the dancing seem to arise spontaneously out of the moment? Does the choreography have a function other than grouping folks together prettily? Does it sweep the action along, or does it coalesce in fits and starts? Story ballets such as "The Nutcracker" are especially vulnerable to a laundry-list approach -- now the parents assemble for their dance, now Drosselmeyer hands out the goods, now Grandpa does his funny little jig, etc. . . . yawn. The more skilled choreographer will dovetail each scene with the one that precedes it, a "through-choreography" approach that uses dance and gesture both as a fluid visual grammar and as the chief means of storytelling.

We look to any art form for an intensification of human experience, and no art beats dance, in my view, for its ability to condense incident and emotion with a power that can pierce the heart. Can this happen amid the familiar waltzing flowers and mirlitons in "The Nutcracker?" Can it tell us something about life?

Can I?

It's only 2 1/2 months to the opening of this year's "Nutcracker" marathon. If I start turning it around in my mind now, odds are I'll stumble upon some new take on it by then . . . if the music doesn't kill me first.

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