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A Tale of Two Nutcrackers

By Christopher Caines, guest contributor

Imagine that Sol Hurok had telephoned the director of a slightly down-at-heel, raggle-taggle, time-traveling vaudeville troupe one day and said, “Parker! Listen: I need a Christmas show! A Nutcracker! Pronto! My Russians canceled. I can get you a couple weeks of one-nights. If you deliver, maybe we can make it an annual thing. Can you do it?”
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Members of the Bang Group in Nut/Cracked

Parker looks around the studio. The troupe has a ragbag assortment of old props–some beat-up top hats and tails, a red feather boa, a fan, silk flowers, sunglasses, a flashlight, a tiny fake Christmas tree for holidays on the road, a stack of maple-leaf-red knit watch caps left over from a winter tour to Ontario, plus bubble wrap to pack it all up in. There’s a Chinese takeout container from somebody’s lunch. Tap shoes? Got ’em. Plus a trunk full of battered toe-dancing shoes the dancers found, left behind on a railway platform by one of the Ballet(s) Russe(s) on a whistle-stop tour that Parker’s group crossed paths with in Des Moines or somewhere. Luckily the troupe does have the right music: a stack of 78s including a set of this Tchaikovsky fellow’s Nutcracker Suite–though a few of the disks are scratched, broken, or missing. But luckily the stack includes some novelty arrangements of the same music that might fill the gaps. Best of all, the troupe has a bunch of terrific dancers: many shapes and sizes–not like a corps de ballet–but all strong movers, smart, ace rhythm, big heart. Maybe a few old friends might be enticed out of the stables as guest artistes, and maybe Parker can get some kids from somewhere–Christmas show, gotta have kids. The Nutcracker . . . it’s about this wooden doll, right . . . ? “Sure,” Parker says to Hurok. “We can do it.” And so, in my fantasy at least, David Parker and the Bang Group’s Nut/Cracked was born.
In fact, Parker’s wryly affectionate take (and double-take) on the holiday ballet classic was not commissioned by Hurok, but by an Italian producer in Genoa in 2003. The piece was next presented in an abridged form at Dance Theater Workshop in January 2004, and returned for a box-office-record-setting two-week run at DTW the following December. Since then the Bang Group has performed the work (in many versions, with casts of varying sizes, on stages ranging from the tiny to the large) around New York City and the country for seven seasons–adhering to the spirit, if not the letter, of the laws of vaudeville. Nut/Cracked has racked up more than 150 gigs, which is remarkable for a non-ballet company’s Christmas dance show, and the work returns to DTW for three matinees starting December 13. The piece often includes guest dancers, and this year, I will be one of them, lending a hand (or a hoof) to an old friend and colleague by appearing in a couple of sections.

I readily agreed when David asked me to dance in Nut/Cracked because I had laughed so hard watching it in 2004. Not only that, but I grew up in a small Canadian city that had no Nutcracker–in my youth, North America still had such cities–and I neither saw nor danced in a production of the ballet as a child, unlike legions of my fellow dancers (including, over the years, many members of my own company). I’ve always felt a bit deprived by my Nutcracker-less childhood. That ballet, of course, opens the magic doorway into dreaming of dancing, and dancing, or a least dance-going, for countless millions. But not for me. At long last, I’ll get to dance in a Nutcracker.

Sort of. For while Nut/Cracked is not a Not-Cracker–that is, it is not an anti-Nutcracker–it is nonetheless not The Nutcracker. Although all the music for the show comes from or is adapted from Tchaikovsky’s score, Nut/Cracked sets aside entirely the ballet’s story and characters: no Marie/Clara/Masha, no Fritz, no Herr Drosselmeier, no Mouse King, no Dewdrop or Sugarplum Fairy or Snow Queen–no Nutcracker, even. Still, they all hover, like ghosts, in the work’s shadows. For Nut/Cracked is a palimpsest: knowledgeable viewers will see through the nut’s cracks to the traditional ballet, and to ballet conventions and mannerisms that are being sent up in some of the numbers. Yet the piece does not rely for its comedy on an audience that knows The Nutcracker at first hand and will get all the to-the-trade jokes. Nut/Cracked‘s humor ranges from the insinuating through the subtle to the very broad, often all at the same time; you can enjoy it no matter what you know about ballet or any other kind of dance, and the work is both good fun for those who adore Christmas, oddly satisfying to those who hate the season, and a tonic for people like me who simultaneously love and dread it.

Parker is not at all the slightly naïve entertainer I have depicted in my fantasy genesis story of his work, but a highly self-aware artist; moreover, his take on the tale is, in Schiller’s terms, a sentimental rather than a naïve work–though in our modern sense of the word, it is not sentimental in the least. Indeed, Nut/Cracked is sly, occasionally arch, and packed with knowing allusions not only to traditional stagings of the score but to other ballets as well–not to mention revivals, quotations, paraphrases, and fond parodies of, among other things, modern and “postmodern” dance, breakdancing, clogging, soft-shoe (in bare feet), Saturday Night Fever-style disco, and the all but lost art of toe tap. The work revels in its mongrel vocabulary, its hybrid vigor, its inclusive taste. The dancing overflows with jokes (many of the in- and/or running varieties), slapstick, gags, pratfalls, visual puns–and a bisl of shtikele too: the silk bouquets in the “Waltz of the Flowers” induce an allergy outbreak among the cast; the skating rink where the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” is set has some treacherous patches the Zamboni must have missed. The traditional Nutcracker is also a comedy: a dramatic entertainment that ends, at least symbolically, in a marriage (as opposed to one that ends in death, which would make it a tragedy). Yet Parker’s Nut/Cracked represents a different order of comedy entirely.

In order to prepare properly for my roles, I thought it might be wise to revisit the “real” Nutcracker. Luckily, I live in New York City, and thus can go straight to the top: Mr. B. And so I found myself in the newly renovated David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center on opening night, the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, at New York City Ballet’s George Balanchine’s The NutcrackerTM, as the company currently bills its annual holiday spectacular, a ballet I had not seen for several years. Premiered in 1954, Balanchine’s Nutcracker is not the country’s oldest full-length version (the San Francisco Ballet holds that honor, with a production originating in 1944), but it is acknowledged by many critics and balletomanes to be the greatest, not to mention the direct source or inspiration for countless other productions. Balanchine’s is likely also the closest in spirit and in detail of dance and mime to the original, premiered in 1892, with a scenario devised by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, director of Russia’s Imperial Theaters, and his ballet master, Marius Petipa, for the Maryinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg, but choreographed by Petipa’s assistant, Lev Ivanov, when the master fell ill.

Viewing The Nutcracker again I was struck above all by its moral seriousness, lightly borne. The choreography, and NYCB’s mise-en-scène in most ways, constitute an exquisitely crafted entertainment; it’s easy to see why families who can afford it make the ballet an annual holiday tradition. Yet the sense that the ballet offers more than entertainment is present from the overture, not only in the way that the music vaults across the whole range of emotion in the score, but in Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s frontcloth, which shows an angel reaching with both hands toward a star. It is worth remembering that this Christmas star, which reappears above the towering pine forest in the last measures of the climax of act 1, the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” to guide the child heroine and hero into the visionary realm of act 2, glisters not over Toys”R”Us: it shines over the Savior’s manger bed in Bethlehem. And although all of Balanchine’s work persuades me that the Virgin Mother of God meant much more to him than the Father or the Son ever could, nonetheless The Nutcracker remembers at some level that Christmas is not only a holiday, but a holy day. We should never forget that Balanchine was a man of faith, and not faith in music alone, but a professing member of the Orthodox Church. How else to explain the Russian child angels, each bearing an unadorned miniature Christmas tree, who glide about the stage on tiptoe in patterns of immaculate symmetry with their stiff conical skirts swaying like church bells, to welcome Marie and her little prince to the Land of Sweets?
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New York City Ballet performs George Balanchine’s Nutcracker, with three generations of characters in the Party Scene

Photo © Paul Kolnik

Balanchine’s Nutcracker, like the original Maryinsky version, is a ballet for and about children, and also a work designed to give children of all ages seriously training for the profession roles to perform. Yet the vital purpose of childhood, in Balanchine’s world, is to grow up, to learn to be an adult. In act 1, we see the children who are invited to the Christmas party at the Stahlbaums’ cozy bourgeois home–gemütlich and gutbürgerlich both–as they are schooled in adult ways, above all, by dancing. At first, parents and children dance their quadrille-like figures together, with the adults guiding their offspring through the steps and patterns and showing them the appropriate manners: how to approach a partner, how to bow, how to offer a hand, how to accept one. Thus instructed, the children are soon able to dance unattended at stage left while their parents dance opposite. The children’s realm is a miniature parallel replica of the adults’. Eventually, the two groups evolve from unison to counterpoint, as the children dance their own independent figures without guidance. Metaphorically–or more precisely, metonymically–the parents have begun to impart an entire aesthetic and moral education. (The theme is underlined in the mime action too, as Marie’s scene-stealing naughty younger brother, Fritz, is repeatedly scolded for his misbehavior.) Later, when corsages are distributed to the males of the assembled company, the little boys gravely offer them to their partners, just as their fathers do. As Arlene Croce wrote in 1974, Balanchine’s act 1 is “taken for granted because it’s so simple and ‘has no dancing.’ It contains the heart of his genius.”

In act 2, Marie and Drosselmeier’s nephew, restored to himself after being transformed into the Nutcracker Prince (the nutcracker doll brought to life to do battle with the Mouse King and his army), do not dance, but sit enthroned high above upstage center to watch the divertissements Balanchine has devised, which include young dancers drawn from many levels of the School of American Ballet. Symbolically, act 2 is a wedding celebration; we remember the crucial bit of mime in the party scene in which Drosselmeier (as least as portrayed by Robert LaFosse, whom I saw in the role) reveals to the audience that he is plotting the union of Marie and his nephew, and the way the two little dancers walk up the aisle through the evergreen cathedral at the close of the snow scene. But Marie is only eight years old. Though she wears a tiny bridal veil throughout act 2, she is celebrating, not her marriage to her gallant young friend, but the future promise of it–Marie is playing house on a very grand scale. Dancing functions in The Nutcracker just as the ballet itself functions within the repertory of a company that maintains a school–like City Ballet, and like the Maryinsky: as a realm of necessary experience, yes, but above all as a realm of noble aspiration. Below them on the stage, Marie and her prince behold dancers of all ages, from the tiny Polichinelles (darling French clowns) who emerge from under Mother Ginger’s skirts, through the adolescent corps of Candy Canes, to Dewdrop (one of the work’s two ballerina roles) and her Flowers. The long path that leads from early lessons to apprenticeship to mature artistry is laid out, step by step, in a series of images of dancerly accomplishment. Yet Balanchine also vouchsafes to Marie secrets of adult life that no child could ever consciously understand, which she can only keep and ponder in her heart, as the Gospel of Luke tells us Mary meditated upon the events of Christmas night. “The annual Nutcracker has become a liturgical event,” Croce wrote in 1969, “one whose deepest significance we celebrate in our hearts and try to keep our children from knowing.”
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Sara Mearns and Charles Askegard as the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier, in the New York City Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker

Photo © Paul Kolnik

In Balanchine’s theatrical universe, to become a dancer–and, especially, a ballerina–is the noblest of all human destinies. It demands great sacrifice; in a certain way, it may even demand the sacrifice of childhood itself. Moreover, all children must at some point leave childhood behind, and while they may know or guess what that mysterious leave-taking will look like, they cannot know how it will feel. In the music for the Sugarplum Fairy’s grand pas de deux with her Cavalier–and only here, in the entire ballet–Tchaikovsky allows adult passion to brim, overflow, and cascade as from a dammed lake of tears. The plangent melody, at first ruminating, then soaring, is deeply shaded by tragic knowledge of indefinable loss. As the melodic motif contracts, rising urgently in pitch and volume, striving to cadence, then crests and wanes, we recognize too the tremor of erotic knowledge. “Listening, we see, we touch,” Croce wrote in 1986, “until we hardly know whether it is the tympani we hear or the hammering of our own hearts.” Tellingly, perhaps, this is the only segment of the score of those that Parker sets that his comedic purposes forbid him to approach on its own terms (whereas he otherwise highlights rhythmical details of the score’s music-box-like textures that strictly balletic treatments sometimes blur), and for which he must resort to Nut/Cracked‘s sole truly sardonic, even caustic ironies. Only classicism at its purest may reach for the star Tchaikovsky hangs high before us.

When I write that Nut/Cracked represents a different order of comedy from Balanchine’s Nutcracker, and that it is a work of Schillerian sentiment, I mean that the two works are suffused with different kinds of self-awareness. The Nutcracker is self-enclosed within the visionary realm of classicism. Gleaming through Balanchine’s ballet are reflections and refractions not only from the Petipa-Ivanov original, in which Balanchine himself danced as a child, but from the other great Tchaikovsky-Petipa ballets, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, as well as Sylvia and Coppélia, whose scores by Léo Délibes Tchaikovsky revered. Indeed, the whole history of ballet as a theatrical art form and a spiritual endeavor shines through the fabric of Balanchine’s choreography, above all in “Snow,” “Flowers,” and Sugarplum’s pas de deux. There is something of Dr. Coppélius in Drosselmeier, with his giant mechanical dolls, for example, and of Swan Lake‘s Von Rothbart too. Sugarplum’s adagio echoes Sleeping Beauty‘s “Rose” adagio. Balanchine’s Nutcracker is a duplicate in its structure of his Midsummer Night’s Dream (which ballet-goers may see at NYCB immediately after The Nutcracker closes in January–a nice programming touch): a densely plotted first act that leads to an all-divertissement second act in ritual celebration of marriage; The Nutcracker‘s act 2 likewise echoes the wedding dances that close The Sleeping Beauty and Sylvia. I could go on. The cultural background of The Nutcracker is ballet itself.
The background of Nut/Cracked, however, is in part the reception of ballet in the United States and the role that The Nutcracker has played in that story over the course of the last century. (Americans’ first exposure to any part of the ballet was in a production entitled Snowflakes starring Anna Pavlova in New York in 1915: the habit of devising spectacles including excerpts from The Nutcracker originates from within ballet, not outside it.) The pop/jazz treatments of Tchaikovsky to which Parker sets the first half of his evening (corresponding structurally, but not thematically, to Balanchine’s act 1 before the “Snow” scene) offered him a side door into Tchaikovsky’s imposing score via the fiercely syncopated percussive vocabulary that is this tap dance-based choreographer’s native dialect. The records also roughly chart the naturalization of the immigrant European aristocratic dance form in the United States, as they range from charming, daffy kitsch (smooth choral arrangements with cute lyrics by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians), to playful but serious jazz recompositions by Raymond Scott, Glenn Miller, and Duke Ellington, who address Tchaikovsky more or less as an equal, as a fellow composer.

The cultural background of Nut/Cracked is equally the American (and worldwide) Christmas Industry, which of course includes the country’s 300-plus current productions of The Nutcracker–and for New Yorkers and our holiday tourists, includes Balanchine’s masterpiece. In this sense Parker’s work has what I can only call a meta-theatrical dimension. Nut/Cracked acknowledges the annual consumer frenzy of Christmas, complete with pandemic bad faith, commodity fetishism, stress, envy, greed, disappointment, shopping and wanting and getting and not getting and returning and “re-gifting”; gruesome Xmas Muzak that starts in October; compulsory contributions to the economy and equally compulsory fun; pious, prefabricated sentiment; the ritual sterile debate about the season’s “commercialism”; the obscenity of year-round Christmas stores; and such traditions, more honored in the breach than in the observance, as getting blasted at the annual office party and making a pass at a co-worker.
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Members of the Bang Group in Nut/Cracked

Beyond its craft–the flowing ensembles, the meticulous development of gestural motifs, the intricate percussive counterpoint, the close attention to the music’s structural changes–the best thing about Nut/Cracked is its good spirit: a lot of “Let’s put on a show!”–but something more, too. For all its wisecracking, Nut/Cracked reveres ballet, which remains within the work an ideal realm of aspiration–perhaps more glimpsed than seen. Classicism is cracked, but not broken. The dancers are forever crashing nimbly to the floor as the choreography, turning on a dime from some cherished Cecchetticism secretly embedded in a buoyant petit allegro enchaînement to a waltz-clog or the Charleston or the Funky Chicken, pulls the flying carpet out from under the dance. More than anything else, Nut/Cracked makes fun of itself, and in so doing allows us to find humor in the predicaments we put ourselves through every year at Christmastime.

Christopher Caines is artistic director of the Christopher Caines Dance Company. He is currently at work reviving ARIAS, the evening-length work with which he founded his ensemble in 2000, for spring 2010 performances.

David Parker and the Bang Group perform Nut/Cracked at Dance Theater Workshop, December 13, 19, & 20 at 2 p.m. New York City Ballet presents George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center through January 3.

© 2009 Christopher Caines

Comments

  1. I enjoyed Christopher Caines’s guest contributor piece about “Nut/Cracked,” in which he compares the Parker version and the classic version of “The Nutcracker.” Thank you.
    I have only this comment, about the name used and its association with “The Nutcracker”: It has become common lately, in Europe, to use the name of a “classic.” At our National Ballet in Amsterdam, the “modern” version of the ballet “Coppelia”–with choreography by Ted Brandsen–Dr. Coppelius has become a “Plastic Skin Curator.” What else can one wish for Christmas!

  2. Martha Ullman West says

    This is a completely brilliant essay on “Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” as the Balanchine Trust demands it be called by everyone who dances it, including Oregon Ballet Theatre, whose production I just saw and reviewed.
    I am particularly grateful for the insights into Balanchine as a deeply religious man, and would extend them a bit further perhaps since as comic as it can be, the battle between the mice and the toy soldiers can be construed as a battle between good (soldiers) and evil (mice) although it is probably more complex than that. Watching the version of Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” performed by OBT, I was struck by some roughhousing by a few small boys in the prologue that involved their rolling around on their backs in much the same way as the mice in the battle scene.
    I read this essay after I attended OBT’s “Nutcracker”; I was struck by Mr. Caines’s insights into how Russian it is, which I thought about while watching the performance, and I’ve long played “where are all the Petipa bits and how well are these dancers going to do them?” I would add that the meticulously musical mime in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” as well as his “Midsummer Night’s Dream” often defeat American dancers. I am happy to say this is not the case for Oregon Ballet Theatre, giving the Portland audience a rare taste of the grand tradition of 19th-century ballet.
    As I read about “Nut/Cracked,” however (and I love the conceit of Hurok’s desperate cri de coeur!), I couldn’t help thinking about Mark Morris’s “The Hard Nut,” which bears some similarities, it seems to me. I wish I could see “Nut/Cracked” with mine own eyes, and Mr. Caines dancing in it, but geography defeats that desire, unless I could be carried there on Marie’s magical doll’s bed.

  3. Mindy Aloff says

    Dear Christopher and Tobi, you make a great team! It’s very charming.

  4. Lisa Traiger, DC DanceWatcher says

    There is, indeed, a religious fervor to the “Nutcracker” mania that occurs across the land each fall and winter, and we do have Balanchine to thank for that. But for the little girls (and boys) who grow up, in part, in ballet studios, there’s much to appreciate about the religiosity this ballet instills in some. Attaining and rehearsing a role, I’ve noted in observing my daughter’s ballet experience (and recalling my own), is like going through preparations for a bar/bat mitzvah (or a first communion, perhaps?). Then, as year by year young dancers attain higher levels of proficiency, we see a growing, sometimes Godlike devotion.
    And, then, of course, when it’s over, choruses of “amen” are heard throughout the land.

  5. George Dorris says

    If I may make one small correction to Christopher Caines’s interesting piece, the first use of music from “The Nutcracker” for dance in the United States that I can document came earlier than he thinks, although again by Pavlova. On April 3, 1911, she staged a farewell matinee at the end of the long tour she and Mikhail Mordkin made with a small company, following up their initial success at the Met the previous season. On the program of this matinee, largely made up of numbers that had not been part of the touring repertory, was “Winter,” using the Snow music that closes act 1, which she was to reuse in 1915 for “Snowflakes,” which was also danced by the corps de ballet. As I have not found a program for this matinee, the information comes from “Annals of the Metropolitan Opera” and reviews, including at least one that mentions the use of the chorus. Others, of course, might have already used music from “Nutcracker Suite,” but that may well be difficult to document and I only found this one while doing research for my article “Dance and the New York Opera War, 1906-1912” in “Dance Chronicle,” Vol. 32, No. 1, about dance at the Metropolitan Opera in those years.

  6. Thank you, George, for your as always reliable scholarship. The detail about Pavlova’s performance I took from the International Encyclopedia of Dance (Oxford University Press, 1998) article on “Nutcracker, the: Productions outside Russia” by Laura A. Jacobs. Since the encyclopedia is still being reprinted, perhaps you might send a note to the current head of Scholarly Reference with a view to corrections in future editions or errata notices in future reprintings; I imagine you might have a few other updates up your sleeve too. Meanwhile, it is interesting to know that Pavlova appeared in a Nutcracker excerpt in New York even earlier than I thought. Snowflakes of 1915, according to Jacobs, combined music from The Nutcracker and Swan Lake, and featured the great ballerina and Alexandre Volinine as the Snow Queen and her Prince. Regardless of who first brought Nutcracker excerpts to the American stage, Jacobs is surely correct in her essential point, that the “first Western incarnations of The Nutcracker” she cites in Europe and the U.S. were “fragmentary and adulterated.”

  7. You rock dude! Awesome post!

  8. It’s been a while since I browsed a really excellent blog post. Not solely well written but relevant. Congratulations.

  9. Thanks. At “The Nutcracker” performed by Oregon Ballet Theater, I was struck by some roughhousing by a few small boys in the prologue that involved their rolling around on their backs in much the same way as the mice in the battle scene. I read this essay after I attended OBT’s “Nutcracker.”

  10. While “Nut/Cracked” is not a Not-Cracker–that is, it is not an anti-“Nutcracker”–it is nonetheless not “The Nutcracker.” Although all the music for the show comes from or is adapted from Tchaikovsky’s score, “Nut/Cracked” sets aside entirely the ballet’s story and characters: no Marie/Clara/Masha, no Fritz, no Herr Drosselmeier, no Mouse King, no Dewdrop or Sugarplum Fairy or Snow Queen–no Nutcracker, even. Still, they all hover, like ghosts, in the work’s shadows. For “Nut/Cracked” is a palimpsest: knowledgeable viewers will see through the nut’s cracks to the traditional ballet, and to ballet conventions and mannerisms that are being sent up in some of the numbers. Yet the piece does not rely for its comedy on an audience that knows “The Nutcracker” at first hand and will get all the to-the-trade jokes. The humor of “Nut/Cracked” ranges from the insinuating through the subtle to the very broad, often all at the same time. You can enjoy it no matter what you know about ballet or any other kind of dance, and the work is at once good fun for those who adore Christmas, oddly satisfying to those who hate the season, and a tonic for people like me who simultaneously love and dread it.

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