Nutcracker Dreams & Nightmares

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

The Nutcracker continues to be the most performed ballet globally, spanning cultures and eras, performed in small-town studio theaters to premier ballet companies. It is an unparalleled ballet phenom. Based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 story of a young girl’s nightmare of vermin invading her bedroom and being rescued by a Nutcracker come to life as her romantic prince, it is a fusion of both Brother’s Grimm scary and Cinderella storybook romance. The tale was ripe for the ballet stage from the start.

When Russian composer Peter Illych Tchaikovsky composed the score, it was also transformed into a defining musical masterpiece. Choreographically, it was dicier having gone through several transformations and continues to do so to this day. Choreographer Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa, masters of Russia’s Imperial Ballet, in 1892 developed the first ballet template.  Since then, there have been countless dance genre interpretations and cultural adaptations.

For generations of dancers in the United States, the Nutcracker is their onstage starting point. The US’ minted version is George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet’s 1954 neoclassical version, with native American ballerina Maria Talchief as the Sugarplum Fairy and Tanaquil Le Clercq.

The Pennsylvania Ballet is one of a few companies licensed by the Balanchine Trust for its staging. It is a gift box of opportunity for classical dancers – virtuosic solos, character parts, fantasy fight scenes, and romantic pas de deux. In long runs, soloists and corps de ballet members are also double and triple cast in different parts.

For contemporary audiences and dancers, issues of ethnographic depictions have rightly become issues. Many companies are now erasing offensive stereotypes, as in ACT II’s ‘Sweet’s characters.’   Most glaringly in the ‘Tea’ trio dance. It depicts what dance historian Jennifer Fisher described in 2018 in a Los Angeles Times op-ed as “not a benign ballet tradition, it’s racist stereotyping.” She cites the scene for its “subservient kowtow” steps, Fu Manchu mustaches, and, especially, the often-used saffron-tinged makeup, widely known as “yellowface.”

For dance companies, large and small, it is a holiday that brings back audiences annually as well as caps off fiscal budgets and stabilizes operations into the coming year. The question remains as to whether the Nutcracker will still have relevance in a year of a raging pandemic and absence of live performances.

Pennsylvania Ballet – Photo credit Alexander Iziliaev

Cracking open E.T.A. Hoffman’s nutty story

E.T.A. Hoffman’s story and Tchaikovsky’s ballet score continue to be so amorphous that it has been a free-for-all of interpretations.

For example, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn composed a jazz orchestral score as ‘The Harlem Nutcracker,’ with a sumptuous jazz tribute to Tchaikovsky. In 1996 choreographer Donald Byrd created a new ballet using that same score. The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Byrd has changed the story…. of a young European girl’s magical Christmas Eve into a rollicking and poignant portrait of a contemporary black American family.”

Ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1977 version, filmed for PBS, starred New York City Ballet/ABT’s Gelsey Kirkland, himself as the Cavalier. The story was interpreted as Maria’s (aka Clara’s) sexual awakening. It was controversial then and even more so after Kirkland’s published memoir, ‘Dancing on My Grave”. She was pressured to lose weight, turning to cocaine to get to under 100 pounds but all the while madly in love with Misha. At the Paris Opera Ballet, Rudolf Nureyev’s version also mined Hoffman’s original dark tale’s psychosexual implications.

Balanchine appears to attempt to preserve his memories of dancing it while at the Imperial Russian Ballet as a youth, with some sentimental and questionable story decisions. Balanchine himself was a very pro-American, Russian expatriate. So this was perhaps a swipe at the 50s Soviet regime and the red-baiting politics in the US at the time. Balanchine’s Candy Cane scene is deservedly a crowd-pleaser in his version.

In contrast, Tchaikovsky intended this orchestral to ignite with the Russian Dance of the Cossack, a folkloric pedigree that goes back centuries to military Russian-Ukrainian barracks. It unleashes acrobatic choreography, including muscled Czardas stomps, knee drops, daredevil vaults, and somersaults.

In the 90s, choreographer Mark Morris went for a madcap satire to skewer the ballet and its freighted traditions. Morris is a purist using the original ballet scores. He restores Tchaikovsky’s original order, metronome marking, and darker narrative elements, drawing from Imperial ballet master Marius Petipa’s discussions with Tchaikovsky.

Morris retitled it ‘The Hard Nut’ with a spin of family dysfunction, featuring fevered waltzes and dances quoted from the 60s stroll and the 70s bump. The Waltz of the Snowflakes has the dancers throwing their own snow and creating blizzards. (draw your own conclusions).

A generation of young fans are probably most familiar with Disney’s lavish 2018 film version. The Nutcracker was ramped up for young audiences to attracting fans of such film blockbusters as Frozen, Harry Potter, and other fantasy heroes and villains tales. 

Pennsylvania Ballet – Photo credit Alexander Iziliaev

Pennsylvania Ballet’s Virtual broadcast of the 2019 Nutcracker

Pennsylvania Ballet’s broadcast of the company’s live performance recorded in the Academy of Music in 2019 will be a ticketed virtual event now running from Dec. 16-25. There is also the addition of the popular Tea with Nutcracker characters in a special live stream during the broadcast run.

Act I depicts the old world holiday rituals, laboriously rolled out by Balanchine with a pantomimed greeting of a yuletide party. Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Angel Corella has been refining the production, making it a showcase for principals, soloists, and the full corps de ballet.

The youth dancers from PAB’s school bring dance naturalism and spirited fun to the holiday party scene. Audrey Tovar is a demure and charming Marie in the leading role, while Rowan Duffy is the bratty scene-stealer as brother Fritz. Liam Agnew is the most attendant and gallant Nephew/Nutcracker. The youngest dancers open ACT II as the promenade musical angels communing with The Sugar Plum Fairy, and later as the Punchenelles, swarming out from Mother Ginger’s monster dress.

Former ABT dancer Charles Askegard is currently dance master at PAB. Indeed, he gives a master class in demi-caractère as the aged Heir Drosselmeier, bumbling around the children then enchanting them with magic and mystery. He winds up The Harlequin dolls for their robotic motions. Next up is the chilling Soldier dance with soloist Peter Weil who is riveting in his dead-eye gaze tossing off of those flat-footed entrechats, and mechanical knee drops,

The mouse battle is played smartly for its cartoonish aspects. Finally, Balanchine unwraps the full-on choreography in the Waltz of the Snowflakes that showcases the corps de ballet women. It is a choreographically intricate scene with its quicksilver pointe work and stage traversing patterns that keep evolving. It is danced with unison precision and shimmering esprit. For many, it is the highlight of the production, with the angelic voices of the Philadelphia Boys Choir serenading the dancers from the Academy’s balcony. Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t pan over to them in the choir loft.

This is a full stage filmed performance with some pans and selected close-ups—a common practice for a visual archive for company use. It was filmed last year by videographer Alexander Izilieav and was not originally planned for public broadcast. There are no effects or dramatic edits to enhance elements. The upside to this low-tech version is that viewers can enjoy the full stage from the theater’s center row. In a live performance, depending on where you are sitting in the Academy (with its acoustical wormholes), inevitably, some of that orchestral detailing is diminished. The virtual broadcast’s full acoustics is a big plus allowing one to be more in the “sound bubble” with the dancers onstage.

Designer Peter Horne’s first act scenery, of a cut-away atrium, is modeled after historic Philadelphia area homes and features an engorging Christmas tree. The period costumes in this production keep giving even on film. The second act, the Land of the Sweets with candy fore-drops and fly, read as bland on screen.

Balanchine’s dance gift-box comes in the Sweets divertissements, starting with the Hot Chocolate Spanish dance ensemble’s buoyant lukewarm confection.

The ‘Coffee’ solo has also been cited as an offensive dance depiction of Arab women and culture. Balanchine again appropriating a western stereotyping of a harem dance with alluring backbends and erotic contortions. That aside, in this performance, Oksana Maslova smolders with her interpretive technique. She is a masterful character dancer and conveys something more than sex.

Jermel Johnson nails the hoop jumps and breezy doubles in the ‘Candy Canes’ dance, with his backup dancers’ in full precision. Zecheng Liang does the controversial ‘Tea’ dance and erases the offending ‘chop-stick’ finger-pointing and cartoonish stereotypes as he flies in the air with thrilling lateral splits. Even though the costumes need updating from the servile silks, this Tea dance moves in the right direction.

Mayara Pineiro leads the Dewdrops scene with vintage Balanchine lockstep ensemble geometrics that can look like dated ‘showgirl’ pageantry. This is not an issue in this performance. The corps de ballet sustain lyrical precision and esprit. Pineiro’s flawless balletic line and glittering deportment set the pace.

Balanchine’s grande pas de deux finale is danced by PA Ballet principals Lillian DiPiazza and Sterling Baca as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Their exquisite chemistry and technical artistry are first-rate. DiPiazza’s diamond-hard arabesque, pirouette runs, fouettes, and pointe work are superb. Baca is simply thrilling as he pumps out a dozen steel centered grande pirouettes and breezy jetes circling the full Academy stage.

PA Ballet orchestra conductor, Beatrice Jona Affron’s detailing and pacing with the dancers is masterful.  Tchaikovsky’s vibrant symphonic rhythms are fueled by the ballet orchestra’s percussion line, pulsing with the strings and powering those flute arabesques. Among the outstanding soloists in the Academy pit are harpist Mindy Cutcher and first violinist Luigi Mazzocchi, who year after year makes Tchaikovsky’s solo engulf the entire Academy of Music as part of the holiday tradition.

Pennsylvania Ballet Presents an Unlimited, Digital Encore Production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, Dec 16-24. For tickets to the virtual broadcast visit

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