My older daughter has been living and working in Germany since August, and I’ve missed her so much that having her home for two weeks was what I wanted most for Christmas. When I asked her over Skype what she wanted for Christmas, she said without hesitation, “Can we see the Nutcracker?”
“Of course,” I said, although I have to admit that normally I would rather attend productions of works I’ve never seen before. However, The Nutcracker is close to her heart, since she danced several parts in the Columbus Youth Ballet production when she was a child. She’s been a Gingersnap, a Candycane, a Soldier, and a Party Guest, and she never tires of it. So I happily got tickets for the Pennsylvania Ballet’s evening performance, the day after Christmas.
Well, folks, it was spectacular. The dancers were in fine form, technically and artistically; the orchestra, under the direction of Beatrice Jona Affron, played expressively and at an almost fearless pace. The Academy of Music, in all its gilt, crystal, and red velvet splendor, is the perfect setting for a ballet that has substance and depth to its layers of confection.
The Pennsylvania Ballet performs the famous version created in the ’50′s by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet. Alastair Macauley explains Balanchine’s innovations, both artistic and psychological, in an article for the New York Times that’s fascinating to read. What strikes me watching this production are the wonderful touches of humor in the First Act (the energizer bunny drummer, the tipsy Grandma, the naughty, hyper little boys, the ammunition of Swiss cheese) and the magical transition of Marie’s Christmas Eve party into her dream world of the Land of Sweets. The big corps de ballet numbers, the Snowflake Dance and the Waltz of the Flowers, are, in their moving symmetry, deeply emotional, and remind me of the perfect form of J.S. Bach.
The score Tschaikowsky composed in 1892 still sounds fresh — tension builds in chromatic progressions as monumental as in his symphonies; color and melodic invention continually evolve. Who has ever heard created anything more hypnotic than the music for the Arabian Dance, for instance? I have no doubt that what makes this great ballet endure is Tschaikowsky’s music.
I’m sure it’s worth the expense to mount the fabulous sets (expanding Christmas trees and snowy landscapes,) and the elaborate costumery of tutus, satin, and lace. Most of all it’s well worth the added effort of involving a great number of talented children -– not just child dancers, but child singers as well. What a genius touch, actually, because the audience, even at night, was full of children. Booster seats were available for the tiniest of ballet watchers (and some of them were pretty tiny,) but I didn’t hear a single child cry, talk, or complain during the performance. The average age of those sitting in the seats was far lower than for the usual ballet, opera, or orchestra audience. I think that’s something to dance about.
Perhaps no one understands the Nutcracker better than a musician who’s performed it for 25 years, as has violinist Charles Parker. “If you have to play the same piece 25 to 30 times in a 3 week period, thank God it’s Nutcracker! ” he says. “Any other piece would truly drive me insane. And, any time that it starts to become boring, you hear a child in the audience laugh or say something like ‘Look at the mouse, Mommy!’ You feel privileged to be part of their new memory, and you play like it’s your first performance.”
I’ll applaud that.