This is the last season of American Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker in New York City and it will be a pity to lose this endearing production to the west coast. Ratmansky’s vision reinvigorates this old chestnut like no other production I’ve seen. The single most important element is that this Nutcracker is full of heartfelt poignancy, given its utmost expression in the opening night performance by Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside. Even if the rest of the evening had been mediocre, these two still would have ensured a memorable night.

Scene from The Nutcracker © Rosalie O'Connor
Scene from The Nutcracker
© Rosalie O'Connor
Danced by Emilie Trauchessec, this Clara is on the precipice of adolescence… a place fraught with peril and possibility. When Victor Barbee’s Drosselmeyer (a character who is alternately fun and frightening) gives her a Nutcracker Boy doll (played by the winsome Kent Andrews) it turns out to be the key that opens the door to the adult world that she is eager to step into. Ratmansky gives special emphasis to Clara’s inner life,and there lies the real magic of this ballet, as his Clara's emotions alternate between shy yearning and childish fear. She was caught at times between the play of childhood, the fighting with her brother Fritz, and the allure of the adult world represented by her new doll. Fritz was portrayed by Gregor Gillen with surprisingly annoying conviction. Really, he did so well that I wanted to pull his hair. Clara exhibited adult bravery bringing down the Mouse King at the culmination of the great battle between the mice and the toy soldiers, and then frolicked in the snow with her newly revealed young prince until she faced the possibility of freezing. This was a snow scene that was chilling as well as beautiful. Trauchessec’s portrayal of Clara was not especially deep but it didn’t need to be, as she already had the audience on her side. Her innate naïveté spoke for itself and opened the way for the grown up version of herself to come to be.

The first act featured standout performances by Misty Copeland and Craig Salstein in the roles of Columbine and Harlequin. Salstein effectively rendered his kinship with the wounded Nutcracker doll after it got damaged by that rotten brat, Fritz. Roman Zhurbin and Adrienne Schulte pulled out all the stops playing the grandparents so broadly that you couldn’t miss the comedy from the Brooklyn Bridge. There is the unsettling feeling in some productions of The Nutcracker that the first act is not much more than an excuse to pack more children into the show with the expectation of selling more tickets to their proud parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. If your own child isn’t one of them, that first act can seem longer than Swan Lake. That is not the case here, where the narrative keeps moving and lets the children be themselves without trying to make them perform choreography beyond their years. They were a little helter skelter and that’s just fine as long as we don’t get too much of it. We didn’t.

When Clara and her Nutcracker arrive in the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy for the second act we meet their alter egos, the grown up versions of themselves. This land is a safe fantasy setting where they can play at being grown-ups for a while and here is where acting really does matter. Murphy and Whiteside were pure magic in capturing the surprised delight of first love. Where the children were still unformed in body and movement, Murphy and Whiteside were poetic and tender, giving an articulate dancing voice to their mutual attraction while maintaining something of their youthful innocence. It helped greatly that Ratmansky avoided some of the more bravura overhead lifts in favor of added gestures of affection between the pair. With their combination of harmonious musicality and great technique, these two flew through their pas de deux in a rapture that thrilled the audience.

G. Murphy as the Princess and J. Whiteside as the Nutcracker Prince in The Nutcracker © Rosalie O'Connor
G. Murphy as the Princess and J. Whiteside as the Nutcracker Prince in The Nutcracker
© Rosalie O'Connor
The second act of course featured the usual exotic variations obligatory in the nineteenth century when this ballet was created. But here too, Ratmansky has injected new life. His work avoided falling into cliché due to his reimagining of the rules. The Waltz of the Flowers features buzzing male bees, of all things, fluttering around pollinating the cheerful flowers. The Arabian Dance began as a wretched cliché with an Arabian prince, nicely played by Thomas Forster with grandiose pomposity. He strutted around with an irritating inability to decide which of the four women scampering around him he favored. The dance was then turned on its head when the women got together and made a power play that transformed him into the wretched supplicant whereupon they showed him scant mercy. The Russian Dance became an elevated skit by the three stooges of ballet, artfully done by Blaine Hoven, Craig Salstein and Arron Scott. All in all, it was as good as The Nutcracker.

This is the last chance to see this Nutcracker in New York during this 75th season of American Ballet Theatre. That should be incentive enough along with the impending retirement of three of the company's leading ladies to get out and see it. Next year will surely be different so let's enjoy this while we can.