writers on dancing


A Story Book Debut

"The Nutcracker"
(School matinee – “The Nutcracker Project”)
New York City Ballet
New York State Theater
New York, NY
December 1, 2004

by Leigh Witchel
copyright © 2004 by Leigh Witchel

There is nothing calm about a sea of children. Looking back from the orchestra of the New York State Theater one could see a red ocean of them, chattering and bobbing.

New York City Ballet administers “The Nutcracker Project” in conjunction with the New York City Department of Education. The theater was filled with third and fourth graders from 34 elementary schools throughout the city, bussed in to see a free matinee exclusively for them.

It wasn’t business as usual. The performance was filled with debuts, including Ashley Bouder’s Sugar Plum Fairy, something balletomanes would and should have paid good money to see. Nothing was truncated; the kids got the full experience, down to the programs and unfortunately, a full-length intermission that made the sea of children very restive indeed. Even though it was a matinee, and an early one at that, the company gave a better performance than it had on opening night.

I’d guess most of the children had never been to a live theater performance before. Their eyes are different than adult eyes and they’re cued differently because of television as well. They shriek when the lights dim and applaud when they go up brightly, but they don’t get the idea of curtain calls, or the moment when the Nutcracker Prince comes forward in his “victory” pose after his transformation back to a young man. Most interestingly, they didn’t know at all what to make of the Sugar Plum Fairy. All the Ballerina Barbies in the universe seem not to have made that archetype sink in for these kids.

I saw a different, more mannerly crop of children onstage in Act I than on opening night, including the gentle Isabella DeVivo as Marie and Steven Lobman as a properly but not outrageously naughty Fritz. Ghaleb Kayali was a fine, handsome young Prince. Henry Seth made a debut as a kindly Mr. Stahlbaum with Saskia Beskow as his wife. Ms. Beskow has always been enjoyable in cameo acting roles; she is an elegant, but coquettish spouse. She dances with Fritz when he’s spurned by the little girls; but casts flirtatious glances at her husband while she’s turned by her son. It’s a lovely moment of marital contentment.

Two new apprentices played the Harlequin and Columbine dolls. Tiler Peck and Rachel Piskin, both of whom made very promising impressions at the SAB Workshop performances a few months ago, were charming in the roles. Vincent Paradiso, a new company member, made a fine debut as the soldier doll.

Like Ms. Beskow, Adam Hendrickson has always been interesting in acting roles. He’s not one for chewing the scenery; his subtly colored interpretations are intimate in scale. It works very nicely for Herr Drosselmeier; there is the right balance of forbidding strangeness and gentleness to him. At this performance as well as opening night, Snow and Flowers have most of the newest company members in their ranks. They’ve become the teaching ballets of the repertory; they’re the first major corps numbers the company performs (at least at Lincoln Center) after the apprenticeships are awarded. If they are the routes into Balanchine corps work for the newest dancers, I hope the company will take special care with them. Bless Richard Moredock for conducting at tempos that didn’t suggest he had a pressing engagement elsewhere.

Ms. Bouder’s excellent debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy was another notch on her belt. As with her other first outings, it looked too confident and polished to be a debut. Technically, it was letter-perfect, but that’s not what you carry away from her dancing. It’s the way she fills a stage, her warmth and grandeur. She nails her turns and her jumps explode, but I recall more how she bowed and smiled to the tiniest Angels on stage as she danced her opening variation for them. It’s interesting that like another of her early triumphs, the Sugar Plum Fairy was Maria Tallchief’s role. I never saw Ms. Tallchief dance, so there’s no way I can make a knowledgeable comparison between the two, but Ms. Bouder has the heroic authority to fill those roles. I’ve said this before, but perhaps “Scotch Symphony” or even Eurydice as a dramatic challenge?

Jared Angle was her cavalier. Mr. Angle isn’t completely at form after his long hiatus from the stage, but he partnered Ms. Bouder well, except for one or two moments that weren’t completely worked out, particularly the treacherous turn where the ballerina is caught only by the wrist.

In other roles, Megan Fairchild also made a technically impressive debut as the Dew Drop. Like Ms. Bouder, she made every turn and held every balance, though she should watch for jamming her feet in quick footwork such as bourrées or piqués. The steps were never a problem for her; she needs now to enlarge her presence to fill the role.

Ellen Bar made a sinuous debut as Coffee; Gwyneth Muller was pleasing in her debut as Hot Chocolate with Seth Orza. Alina Dronova led the Marzipan Shepherdesses and did one slow triple pirouette to the knee that seemed to surprise even her. Craig Hall did the fleeting role of Tea, popping out of a box and disappearing back into it. It’s an apt metaphor. He’s obviously talented – will we ever see more of him?

Volume 2, No. 46
December 6, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Leigh Witchel


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last updated on November 29, 2004