The year 2016 will mark the 50th anniversary of the première of Yuri Grigorovich’s The Nutcracker at the Bolshoi Theatre. He created the ballet, with legendary dancers Ekatarina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev in the roles of Marie and the Prince, two years after he became artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet. Grigorovich closely followed Tchaikovsky’s beautiful dramatic score to create a simple narrative that spans both acts with no extraneous characters and activities: in her dream in Act I, Marie meets the Prince and they fall in love; in Act II they are united in happiness and then she awakens to find the Nutcracker Doll waiting for her. The ballet has endured because it is an exquisitely musical, beautiful, and charming production, enchanting for both adults and children alike. I have seen it many times over the past 35 years, and it still looks fresh.

© Damir Yusupov
© Damir Yusupov

The sets and costumes by Simon Virsaladze, Grigorovich’s long-time collaborator, are magical. For those used to glittery productions of this ballet, the sets’ predominant colors will be a surprise: black, silver, and red. The Dolls’ costumes in a range of bright colors are a striking contrast. In the Dance of the Snowflakes and the Waltz of the Flowers, blues, white, and the palest of pinks are introduced into the color palette. The ballet is beautifully lit; spotlights and falling snow are used in several very dark scenes to dramatic effect and the dances for the corps de ballet sparkle without being overly bright.

The choreography fits the music so perfectly that it appears to be easy; in fact, it is technically demanding, with Marie and the Prince performing multiple jetés, fouettés, and pirouettes in both Acts. Marie’s variation set to the sugar plum fairy music is danced almost completely on pointe with multiple turns, and the pas de deux for Marie and the Prince includes several spectacular overhead lifts. Most of the choreograpy for Drosselmeyer’s dancing dolls in Act I and for the Dolls that accompany Marie and the Prince throughout Act I and II is similarly demanding. The Waltz of the Flowers is a masterpiece of intricate ensemble choreography.

Marie was danced beautifully by Kristina Kretova. Kretova has a warm stage personality that perfectly suits the role. She believably projected the qualities of a young girl in Act I and a young woman in Act II. While her balances are exceptional, at times she holds them overlong, which breaks the flow of her movement.

Ivan Vasiliev – best known for his portrayal of strong heroic roles such as Spartacus – played the Prince. Because his proportions and line are not the classical ideal, at first sight he definitely does not suit the role and many traditionalists would strongly object to his casting solely for this reason. The Prince, after all, is a role of limited dramatic scope with pure classical dance requirements. But Vasiliev is a very special dancer whose other qualities have made him an audience favourite:  a powerful masculine stage persona, strong acting ability, and a magnetic energy. He can also play a romantic young man with an almost boyish quality, as he demonstrated in his Romeo with the La Scala Ballet company. This latter quality he used to great effect as the Prince. In the moment when he uncovers his face in Act I, he expressed pure joy at finding himself a Prince again – no longer a Nutcracker Doll – and he conveyed this emotion in his dancing and acting throughout the entire performance. I have seen this ballet with many of the Bolshoi’s casts, and I was never moved as I was by Vasiliev’s interpretation. His partnering, turns, and jumps were excellent with his deep plie enabling soft and quiet landings.

Vitaly Biktimirov played Drosselmeyer – warm and very much the godfather at the Christmas party but mysterious and magical in Marie’s dream. All of the dancers who portrayed the Dolls were excellent but Anna Antropva and Alexander Smolyaninov stood out with their exuberant Russian dance. The Indian Dance – which Grigorovich substituted for the traditional Coffee/Arabian dance – is the only section of the ballet that does not fit (at least for this reviewer). The costumes and lighting are exotic but the choreography – in which bent knees and flexed feet predominate in repetitive moves – does not express the romantic and sensual music. The corps de ballet beautifully danced the ensemble pieces – the Dance of the Snowflakes and the Waltz of the Flowers – with elegance and precision.

Leaving the theatre after this magical performance was akin to Marie’s awakening from her enchanting dream.