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Kennedy Center's Tchaikovsky on Ice: Chilled, I'm Sure

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 1999; Page C01

Low. How the mighty have fallen. The ballet series at the Kennedy Center has been in general decline, certainly. But can it have come to this--" 'Nutcracker' on Ice"?

Alas, yes. The Opera House stage is covered with ice, a snow machine grinds loudly somewhere backstage and Tchaikovsky serves as soundtrack to axels and spins. The production, by what are billed as "the Russian Stars of the St. Petersburg State Ice Ballet," has its appealing elements--namely, really pretty costumes. But given that it's part of the same series that will offer us the Bolshoi Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, it gives one pain--er, pause.

There has been skating at the Kennedy Center before, ice ensembles that have been justifiable additions to the dance program. The highly regarded Baltimore-based Next Ice Age performed two years ago, as a reasonable replacement for the canceled Kirov Ballet, and the late Olympian and poetic ice choreographer John Curry performed there with his troupe to great acclaim in the '80s.

But this ice show would be better hosted by a municipal skating rink. It offers neither technical tricks--few jumps, no intricate footwork, no heart-stopping speed--or artistic insights. One advantage skating has over dancing is its enviable flow over the ice, that sense of effortless, windswept flight, yet that was little in evidence. Choreographer Konstantin Rassadin neither expanded the expressive potential of skating nor fully explored what skating might have to add to the well-known steps of the classic "Nutcracker."

This version of the holiday chestnut primarily tries to stick with tradition, yet it even has problems with that. The first half begins and ends with snow spewing from that congested snow machine, competing with the orchestra for dominance. The skaters are fetchingly costumed in 18th-century waistcoats, hoop skirts and white wigs--though the ballet is traditionally set in the late 1800s, when it was created.

Perhaps the skaters need the wigs for warmth. (Audience members, too, should be well wrapped against the theater's chill.) Certainly their skating doesn't generate much heat. They circle left, they circle right, they skate backward, they skate forward. There is little attempt made to match the movement ideas called for in the music. Tchaikovsky's first act is full of effervescent melodies, social dances appropriate for the formal Christmas party hosted by the Stahlbaum family, at which their daughter Clara receives the magical Nutcracker doll from her godfather. But there's no skating equivalent here. When Tchaikovsky rolls out an up-tempo quadrille, the skaters pose and wave their arms.

Though there are no sets--just painted drops--and the choreography, such as it is, is greatly simplified, the Opera House stage looks cramped. One reason is that the ice surface doesn't extend into the wings, so after the skaters have finished gliding across the stage, they must suddenly halt and stumble their way over a barrier.

The interlocking "Waltz of the Snowflakes" that closes Act I is quite lovely (isn't that the least that you'd expect?). Things brighten considerably in the second half, the dreamscape in which Clara and the transformed Nutcracker Prince journey to Confituremburg, the kingdom of sweets. New skaters take on the roles of Clara and the prince (Elena Komonova and Alexei Pogodin), and their ease and warmth give the show a lift.

The overall skating, as well, improves. We meet the usual folk characters--the Spanish, Oriental (in other productions known as Arabian) and Chinese dancers, as well as the Russian Trepak duet and the reed pipe, or "Mirlitons" trio, called here simply "pas de trois." All get the chance to show off athletic lifts and a few throws.

But even for sheer entertainment value, let alone artfulness and invention, this ice ballet doesn't approach the level of the Ice Capades, or even the "Disney on Ice" shows.

This program continues through Sunday. But you'd do better to take in any of the numerous ballet versions of "The Nutcracker" opening up around town. At the very least, someone ought to stuff a sock in that snow machine.

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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