Mikhail Baryshnikov's new production of "The Nutcracker" for American Ballet Theater, which ends a two-week run at the Kennedy Center today, has proven itself not only a commercial triumph but an artistic coup as well. As of the present moment, I've seen five performances with three different casts, besides two full-length rehearsals. With each successive viewing, this "Nutcracker" has seemed more endearing, more richly embroidered with inspired detail, more deeply satisfying as a whole.
Relative to other settings of the Tchaikovsky score for the ballet stage in this country, including the Balanchine version, Baryshnikov's appears lower-keyed, subtler, less spectacular on its face. The absence of children as participants, which does deprive the production of a certain bubbling familial cheer, prepares one for the more serious overtones of Baryshnikov's conception. The colors, too, are more subdued than one is apt to expect in "Nutcracker," and the stage action is not quite so unremittingly sprightly.
At the same time, it is more definitively a ballet , and not merely the Yuletide entertainment with dance embellishments which so many other "Nutcrackers" boil down to.
In this respect, Baryshnikov's "Nutcracker" is more akin to Rudolf Nureyev's staging (for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1967 and then England's Royal Ballet the following year) than to domestic versions. There's no surprise in this, since Baryshnikov and Nureyev were both raised on Vassily Vainonen's 1934 production for the Kirov Ballet, which clearly influenced their later recensions.
A child's Christmas dream is still the basis of the Baryshnikov, and the prevailing mood remains euphoric. But the child is older - a girl on the verge of adolescence - and the dream branches out to become, not just the wish fulfillment of a candy kingdom, but an envisagement of mature love, incarnate in the Nutcracker-Prince. The amplified role of Drosselmeyer, the toymaker, and the elusive ending, moreover, imply that such love must not only be dreamt of but earned, and that there may be grave perils attendant upon the quest.
What impresses one increasingly about Baryshnikov's "Nutcracker" the more familiar it becomes is the logic and integrity of its thematic development. Before the first act curtain rises on the Stahlbaum's Christmas party, we see Drosselmeyer with his dolls and puppets, calling the tune, as it were, for these creatures of his fancy. As he works, he looks up at the curtain, upon which are painted all the figures of the ballet - the Nutcracker, Clara, the tree, the dolls - in a Chagall-like ephemerality. Drosselmeyer "consults" the picture as he proceeds - it is his recipe for the forthcoming enchantments, and in a sense everything which ensues in the ballet is but a magnification of this prologue.
In the party scene, Drosselymeyer teaches the young girls a dance - i.e., ballet is among the arts of which he is a master. His puppet show not only adumbrates the duel between the Prince and the Mouse King, but provokes the boys into mischievous imitation. The tipsy guest who accidentally fractures the toy Nutcracker has been trying to yank it into life-size, in response to Clara's pleas. When Drosselmeyer transforms the Nutcracker into a Prince, the latter recovers wonderingly from a daze, as if his human form had been immanent in the toy all the while, and was now simply unlocked by the wizard. The buffoons who greet Clara and the Prince at the gate of the royal palace dance both forlornly and giddily, their mixture of melancholy and joy mirroring the ballet's own emotional pallette. Nothing in the action of the ballet is arbitrary or merely decorative - everything connects to the core.
The choereography itself abounds in echoes and anticipations. When Drosselmeyer presents the Nutrcracker to Clara, she clasps the toy in her hands and dances with the puppeteer, thus forecasting the remarkable pas de trois of the next act to the music of the great Adagio. The steps of the Nutcracker's platoon of soldiers harken back to the boys' dance at the beginning of the party scene. Vainonen's Snowflake ensemble at the end of Act I presages the style and pattern of the Waltz of the Flowers in Act II, just as wintry winds herald spring's sequel.
Throughout the ballet, Baryshnikov's choreography is wondrously lucid, modest, and compellingly musical in an almost naive way, letting the steps "sight-read" the music with a disarming instinct for aptness. Individual steps recur in a leitmotivic fashion, such as the forward jetes en attitude (a favorite with Bournonville) with which Clara and the Prince express their mutual exultation. There are highlights throughout, but the sequence of dances commencing with the Waltz of the Flowers and proceeding through the Prince's solo, Clara's "Sugar Plum" variation, their dual coda and the sublime pas de trois with Drosselmeyer, is magnificently sustained in invention.
The "Sugar Plum" solo, with its dainty little sweeps of the foot to Tchaikovsky's anapestic motto, giving Clara the look of traipsing on air, is a perfect gem of lyric characterization. In "Serenade," Balanchine had shifted Tchaikovsky's most passionate music (the Elegy movement) so that it would come last in the ballet. Similarly, in "Nutcracker," Baryshnikov saves the most rapturous part of the score, the adagio entree, for the end of this sequence, where it serves his most intricate and moving choreography in the pas de trois.
The music, the choreography, and the staging enter into an amazingly consonant compact with the settings, constumes and lighting of Baryshnikov's "Nutcracker." Boris Aronson's designs - the act curtains suggest dreams; the party scene and the castle are like elaborate dollhouse cutouts; the snow forest has the delicacy of a tinted cellophane collage - correspond precisely to the spirit of Baryshnikov's allegory.
So do Jennifer Tipton's muted lightscapes and Frank Thompson's wonderfully harmonized, imaginative costumes - the most becoming to "Nutcracker" I've ever seen.
As a consequence of this unity of means and ends, Baryshnikov's "Nutcracker" in its own unemphatic way carries an emotional impact of considerably greater weight and reasonance than any other in my experience.