For many, Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker signals the start of the holiday season. The famous score, festive setting, and winter backdrop are the perfect combination for an annual tradition. Ballet companies across the world present this family favorite, and this year New York City Ballet brings George Balanchine’s original choreography to life.

Sara Mearns as The Sugarplum Fairy © Paul Kolnik
Sara Mearns as The Sugarplum Fairy
© Paul Kolnik

The Nutcracker is unique as it has become well known beyond the ballet world. Most audience members are familiar with the story based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Balanchine’s interpretation preserves the familiar plot following a young girl from a Christmas party at her home to the Land of Sweets. There have been many versions and reinterpretations since the original Russian premier, but George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker preserves many original features including casting children in the main roles. Marie (Fiona Brennan), the little girl in some versions known as Clara, and the Nutcracker (Colby Clark), half the party guests, the toy soldiers, and mice are all performed by children. For this reason Act I consists of a lot of story telling without a lot of complex choreography.

Led by conductor Clotilde Otranto, hearing the New York City Ballet Orchestra perform Tschaikovsky’s score live is a beautiful experience in its own right. Overall, the party scene remains lighthearted. Marie’s brother Fritz (Maximillian Brooking Landegger) is a constant menace disrupting the guests any way he can. Giovanni Villalobos’ springs to life as a toy soldier, entertaining the audience with his skill while staying in character. Marie’s doting godfather Herr Drosselmeier (Robert La Fosse) adds a welcome bit of tension during the transition from reality to dream world perched on top of a grandfather clock for the ballet’s only frightening moment. Marie’s nutcracker saves her from the evil mouse king and the fallen leader is carried off stage by his mouse army. One mouse lags behind, lamenting the death of his king as only a full-bellied rodent can. It’s a brief moment but a hilarious one.

In the second act Marie and her prince (Clark) are guests of honor in the Land of Sweets and treated to dances, and confections, from around the world. The curtain reveals a child’s dream: the stage is filled with every candy imaginable in a rainbow of colors. The dancers’ costumes (Karinska) are similarly candy colored ranging from chocolate brown to neon hued flowers giving each section a distinct flavor. At times, these sections carry outdated undertones. For example, the Arabian Coffee (Georgina Pascoguin) section contains the most sensual choreography and costume. Pazcoguin, however, creates gorgeous shapes in the air, her bright red skirt trailing behind her.

Tiler Peck embraced her role as Dewdrop, fully committing to the ethereal nature of her character. She floats through the air filling out each musical phrase and expression. The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier (Sara Mearns and Jonathan Stafford) perform the only pas de deux in this ballet including some breathtaking surprises. Mearns is most exciting to watch when given the chance to show her strength with Stafford. At one point he pulls her across the stage en pointe like a statue in arabesque, the toe of her supporting leg sliding along the floor. In the next section Stafford flies across the stage. His turning leaps draw a large circle and Mearns follows his path echoing his sweeping movement with fast, tight pirouettes.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is a sugary sweet treat this holiday season sure to delight the child, or inner child, in your life. This ballet is running now through December 31st at Lincoln Center, will be available in select theaters nationwide on December 13th, and broadcast as part of PBS’s Live From Lincoln Center series on December 14th.