The moment a mouse peeked out of a stewpot in the kitchen of the Stahlbaum’s kitchen, I knew that American Ballet Theatre's version of The Nutcracker would keep me engaged all evening. Fear, hope, fantasy, and humor interplay as Clara matures and the Nutcracker turns magically into a Prince. In its 6th year, Alexei Ratmansky’s version is clearly a fairy tale dream sequence, the fantasy of a young teen girl yearning for womanhood.

The Party Scene © Gene Schiavone
The Party Scene
© Gene Schiavone
ABT’s The Nutcracker premieres this year on the west coast, bringing a snow-filled dreamlike journey with larger than life scenery, magical toy soldiers, mischievous mice, and sparkling snowflakes to the sunny coast of southern California. Over 120 ABT performers and directors collaborated with the Pacific Symphony, conducted by David LaMarche, and the Southern California Children’s Chorus to unfold Ratmansky’s sparkling and colorful version of E.T.A. Hoffman’s novella (1816) set to Tchaikovsky’s (1892) well-loved music. While there are at least fifty versions of The Nutcracker being performed in Southern California, Ratmansky’s choreography, which ranges from mimed expressions to virtuosic leaps, turns, and rebounds, paired with Richard Hudson’s colorful costumes and sets and Southern California’s best musicians is unique.

We enter the Stahlbaum residence in the kitchen, where the cook and maids prepare dinner, and sneaky mice appear from nooks and crannies. At the crowded party, the gift-giving choreography introduces the story, and Drosselmeyer – a rather nice guy in this version – wears a glitter-lined coat, shares magic tricks, and brings presents that come to life. Drosselmeyer’s Harlequin and Columbine toys, performed by Arron Scott and Cassandra Trenary, livened up the party. During the social dancing that followed, Grandmother, joyfully danced by Hannah Marshall, stole the moment by revealing that a person of any age can join in the spirit of the dance. After bedtime, Clara meets the mice when she sneaks down to check on her Nutcracker. The cute little child-mice and bigger mice, which are not much scarier, engage in battle with the Nutcracker Prince and his men. During the battle scene, Clara, sitting atop a surrealistically gargantuan chair, enters a scene in which everyone has become as small as mice, and Clara tosses a shoe at the Mouse King to help win the battle. The beautiful snowflakes that begin to fall become icy, swirling masses of frosty dancers that drift, blow, and swirl. Typically Nutcracker snow scene choreography is lovely, but Ratmansky's snowflakes become fierce and menacing, spring up, dart, chase, and block Clara and the Prince, eventually numbing them into a deep, cold sleep. 

Mother Ginger and the polichinelles, scene from Ratmansky's <i>the Nutcracker</i> © Gene Schiavone
Mother Ginger and the polichinelles, scene from Ratmansky's the Nutcracker
© Gene Schiavone
 

In act II, Drosselmeyer transports Clara and the Prince to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, an otherworldly, enchanting land of sweets where, in this version, the Nutcracker’s six sisters reside with the Sugar Plum Fairy’s friends and various international entertainers, Mother Ginger, her children, flowers, and bees. The entire act is a celebratory holiday diversion that, in E.T.A. Hoffman’s day would have been a celebration of exotic treats from Arabia, Spain, China, and Russia. Today, there is resistance to evolve from this. Ratmansky modified the “Arabian” dance by having harem dancers revolt against their husband. The “Spanish” and “Chinese” dances were standard essentialized fare. The “Russian” dancers, rather than performing expected folk dance virtuosity, gallumphed around with jocularity interspersed with barrel leaps, more similar to Hollywood’s depiction of sailors on leave than Russian folk dancing. 

As writer of the New Republic Alice Robb stated about Nutcracker performances on Christmas Eve, 2014, “[…] the racial insensitivity of The Nutcracker is symptomatic of a bigger issue. Ballet is […] not a progressive art form.” Who holds the creativity and power to create a Nutcracker performance for the whole family that is universal, rather than oversimplifying cultures at the expense of those not at the center of dominant culture? Ratmansky had the opportunity, but I don't think he met that challenge. This uncomfortable suite of dances was followed by a lovely Flower waltz that swooped, whirled, and warmed our hearts. The sixteen flowers were graced by four hilariously costumed bees, who danced among the flowers, and eventually tossed the flowers back and forth between them.

Gilliam Murphy (The Princess), James Whiteside (the Prince) and company © Gene Schiavone
Gilliam Murphy (The Princess), James Whiteside (the Prince) and company
© Gene Schiavone
This Nutcracker fulfils its goal because Clara – both as a young girl and as the Princess – is performed with a clear emotional development throughout the ballet. As a young girl (portrayed by Claudia Schuman), we can feel what Clara fears, desires, and cares about. As the adult Princess (portrayed by Gillian Murphy), we can feel Clara’s maturity and willingness to connect, love, and trust herself. The pairing of Murphy as Princess with James Whiteside as Prince was most engaging in their sensitively performed pas de deux, when they engaged with complete awareness and emotional connection with each other.