The Nutcracker was the last of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s three ballets. It had its premiere in St. Petersburg in December of 1892, where it was the second work on a double bill that opened with Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta, also a premiere. Ten months later, St. Petersburg heard the first performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, Pathétique. Nine days after that, on November 6, 1893, the composer—in his prime, enjoying world fame, and full of the future—died at the age of fifty-three. He had contracted cholera, which took him in four days.
At the time of their premieres, all three of these works were damned with faint praise. Iolanta, though charming, was considered weak in melody—“far from [Tchaikovsky’s] usual high level,” one newspaper reported. The Nutcracker was thought to be lacking in invention—“no creativity whatsoever”—though the richness of its sets and costumes was much praised. And the Pathétique, with its stormy secret meanings (“let them guess,” Tchaikovsky said) and its dark, airless ending, was received coolly. These initial responses remind us how blasé audiences and critics can become about genius in their midst, not only taking the gifted for granted, but giving them an extra kick for good measure. The fate-tossed Pathétique, which in retrospect reads like a premonition of death, was soon embraced. Iolanta, to this day, remains an underappreciated operatic gem. And The Nutcracker, now a beloved holiday ballet, outstrips Christmas carols and Handel’s Messiah as December’s soundtrack of choice. The conductor Sir Simon Rattle, in an essay accompanying his recent recording of the ballet, sums it up nicely: “The Nutcracker is simply one of the great miracles in music.”
This doesn’t mean that over the last hundred-plus years The Nutcracker has gotten any easier to stage. Like Tchaikovsky’s two earlier ballets, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty, you can listen to the score of The Nutcracker and see exactly what is happening at any given moment. The overture—bright, heightened, its twinkling sensation achieved by scoring that leaves out the ground floor of the orchestra (the brass, bassoons, and double basses)—captures the first blessed stars of Christmas Eve. Or as Rattle hears it, “The whole thing is like the top of a Christmas tree.” The music that brings us into the Silberhaus home meanders a bit, frets, capturing that feeling of suspension before guests arrive, and the party that follows is vividly rendered: the anarchic attacks of the boys, the maternal play of the girls, the formalities of the adults, the ominous energies of the inventor Drosselmeyer, who is the godfather of Clara Silberhaus. Tchaikovsky’s cinematic score is as precise as a battle plan. And when the Christmas tree begins to grow, animated by Drosselmeyer, the ballet lifts into another place altogether. It is here that the orchestral floor, like a forest understory, comes alive. The theme of the growing tree is an eleven-note scale that repeats upward with growing strength. Tchaikovsky turns these climbs into long garlands, hanging one after the other, the first starting at the top of the tree in the strings. As the thematic climb continues, the tonal coloration of the garlands spirals downward to the orchestral roots—the basses, then the brass. The musical structure is a double helix, and its effect is one of subterranean stirrings, a nascence growing in the dark like bulbs in the basement or human pubescence, its anxieties and longings, its pleasurable pain, hormonally triggered. “All the soarings of my mind,” the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, “begin in my blood.”
The tree’s surge upward and the action that follows are Clara’s dream, though the starting point of the dream is uncertain. Drosselmeyer reappears, toys battle mice, and a wooden nutcracker doll becomes a young prince. The girl and the prince wander through a blizzard until they are whisked from the cold and taken to the realm of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where they are entertained by a smorgasbord of sweets come to life. It’s all very clear and coherent to the ear. But the eye is demanding in a literal way, and staging must answer the eye.
Tchaikovsky himself worried whether the story—which was based on a tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann, as simplified by Dumas père—was really suitable for the stage. When he began working on the ballet, he found it wasn’t inspiring him the way The Sleeping Beauty had. Roland John Wiley, in his book Tchaikovsky’s Ballets, lays out the problems posed by The Nutcracker’s libretto. Not only is the “action-filled Act I . . . followed by an almost static Act II,” but the action and imagery of the everyday realm is not compellingly connected to or resolved in the fantasy that follows.
It didn’t help that Marius Petipa—who together with the Mariinsky director I. A. Vsevolozhsky had fashioned the libretto—became ill while staging the ballet and handed a half-finished choreographic job to his deputy Lev Ivanov. “Can we be certain,” Wiley asks, “that Petipa’s indisposition was not in some way linked to his realization that the defects of Nutcracker did not admit of easy remedy?” Ivanov’s choreographic gifts, it has been said, were better suited to poetic flight than to the more prosaic necessities of narrative, which is what The Nutcracker still required. For balletomanes of the era, the result was nonsense. What, after all, was happening? Where, finally, did Clara and the Nutcracker prince—and by extension the ballet—end up? The original libretto describes the apotheosis as “a large beehive with flying bees, closely guarding their riches.”
Wiley tells us that Soviet historians have defended The Nutcracker as a “symphony of childhood.” In the book Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky, George Balanchine, who in 1954 choreographed The Nutcracker for the New York City Ballet, says, “Tchaikovsky remained a child all his life, he felt things like a child. He liked the German idea that man in his highest development approaches the child.” Balanchine also recalled that Igor Stravinsky “particularly liked Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker because there is no heavy psychology in it, just an entertaining spectacle, understandable without tons of words.”
So true. And yet not true when you’re the choreographer who has to decide what the spectacle is about, and what it means to Clara. Among numberless productions around the world and through the decades, some fairly heavy psychology has been brought to bear on The Nutcracker. The mice are sometimes turned into rats, and Drosselmeyer has been seen as the sexual double of the Nutcracker prince (in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1976 version for American Ballet Theatre, the final pas de deux became a pas de trois that included Drosselmeyer). Projections, transference, symbolism, subconscious—well, it’s true that the 1899 publication of Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams was merely seven years off. And in 1910 Freud would work with the St. Petersburger Sergei Pankejeff—dubbed “Wolf Man” in Freud’s famous case study—whose dream of seven white wolves sitting in a tree outside his bedroom window speaks lyrically to the midnight transformations in the Silberhaus living room. In the original libretto, “moonlight falling through the window” is mentioned more than once; and a window is usually an important design element in The Nutcracker’s transition from reality to dream. What has been lost, however, in discussions of the ballet’s flaws, virtues, and meanings is its soulmate, fraternal twin, and sister: Iolanta.
Tchaikovsky worked on both Iolanta and The Nutcracker during the same time span—February of 1891 to early 1892. He went back and forth between them, favoring one and then the other, depending on how the work was going. There’s no question that the story of the one-act opera Iolanta is simpler than The Nutcracker’s. It was, moreover, a story of Tchaikovsky’s own choosing, whereas The Nutcracker was added to the commission by Vsevolozhsky, to create a full program. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest, with whom he was very close, wrote the libretto for Iolanta. It was based on the play King René’s Daughter by Henrik Hertz, who in turn drew inspiration from a story by Hans Christian Andersen.
The tale tells of the princess Iolanta, born blind and brought up ignorant of the concept of sight. Her father, King René, has raised her away from the world amid Edenic gardens in the middle of a desert and has pronounced death to anyone who tells his daughter of her affliction. When the young Count Vaudémont trespasses into these gardens and sees Iolanta, he falls in love with her chaste beauty, and she falls in love with his voice. He describes “vision” and “light” to her. King René learns what has happened and sentences Vaudémont to death. He does so hoping this will give Iolanta the determination to accept treatment from the Moorish doctor, Ibn Hakia, for in gaining sight she will save the life of Vaudémont. The opera ends happily, celebrating light and love as one and the same.
Unlike The Nutcracker, Iolanta has a clear continuity and a neat resolution. Still, there are similarities between the ballet and the opera. Clara, like Iolanta, is safe within the bosom of her family. She is enchanted not by a voice but by a toy symbol of a man, yet it too fills a space in her heart where desire is deepening its roots (early in the opera Iolanta says she is longing “for something, but what? I don’t know myself”). Clara’s dream, which gives her a Vaudémont of her own, may not bring her actual love but it does offer her insight into love—that it must be the mating of souls. And in both works, the heroine saves the life of the hero: Iolanta by seeing and Clara by throwing her slipper at the Mouse King. Furthermore, can we seriously believe that an artist of Tchaikovsky’s structural sophistication and mastery of tonal subtext would not have formed connective tissue—a subconscious relationship—between these two compositions? There are passages throughout the opera that nod to the breathless flights in the Antonia section of Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Antonia is also isolated and afflicted), as if Tchaikovksy were making Iolanta a “tale of Hoffmann,” and therefore a sibling to The Nutcracker, which derives from Hoffmann.
It is the critic Herman Laroche, Tchaikovsky’s schoolmate, champion, and friend, who has written most persuasively about Iolanta and The Nutcracker as interdependent halves of a theatrical whole: “In the creative process from the very beginning [Tchaikovsky] imagined a certain unity of impression, and in certain features directly strove for such unity. The unity, however, is based on contrast.” The intense and touching Iolanta versus the bright and bustling Nutcracker. The secluded garden versus the sociable party. And look at the overtures: Iolanta, Laroche writes, “is without stringed instruments, the other with strings but no winds.” Indeed, the opening of Iolanta is strikingly melancholy, consisting of earthbound woodwinds with a dusky daub of horns now and then—exactly right for a character who has no experience of sky or stars.
I would add another contrast to the list: Iolanta is about hearing and The Nutcracker seeing. Iolanta’s world is without color, and so Tchaikovsky’s orchestration of the opera is comparatively colorless. The ballet—a visual art—serves up a feast of orchestral color. This particular opposition adds weight to Wiley’s view that “the serious opera gives way to the diverting ballet—as if the whole of Nutcracker were to be taken by the audience as the celebration of Iolanta’s wedding, a relief from the seriousness of her story that remains free of any obligation to logic.” You could say that The Nutcracker is a musical celebration of Iolanta’s sight. Wiley concludes that “removing the opera would assuredly exaggerate the flaws of the ballet.”
I think Tchaikovsky gives us a clue to his thinking in the arioso sung by Ibn Hakia, the Moorish doctor who has powers in Iolanta not unlike those of Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker. It begins (remember, the text was written by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest), “Two worlds, that of the flesh and that of the spirit, have been united in all manifestations of life . . . just like two inseparable friends. There is no sense that the body alone knows, nor is the gift of sight limited to the body.” The melodic range of this arioso is extremely narrow, almost a bass line, but it is embellished with Nutcracker-like flights of the piccolo—aural minarets that herald the ballet to come.
What does all this mean for The Nutcracker? That its dichotomy is not one of innocence and experience but of flesh and spirit. Both Iolanta and The Nutcracker are about awakening, which in all creatures begins physically, viscerally, as an inchoate longing for “something, but what” that must be reined, refined, transformed by idealism, whether it be fidelity in marriage (Iolanta) or transcendence through art (The Nutcracker). Amid the sensual glut of the The Nutcracker’s sweets kingdom (or “pleasure-dome,” for there is something “Kubla Khan”–ish about Act II) emerges the magisterial adagio of the Sugar Plum pas de deux. Petipa asked Tchaikovsky to produce “a colossal impression,” and Tchaikovsky did. The adagio begins at a great height. It is passionate, perilous, heroic, huge, the garland theme of the growing tree now evolved, absorbed, into a steeper, larger theme of balance—the ever-precarious balance, perhaps, that we hope to find between the sensual and the spiritual. This was a challenge with which Tchaikovsky was deeply acquainted. In the Pathétique, we hear the pain of the challenge. In The Nutcracker, with younger ears, we hear the grandeur.
This last December, American Ballet Theatre unveiled a new production of The Nutcracker—the third in its history—at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Its choreographer, Alexei Ratmansky, who is currently abt’s artist in residence, has given the company a traditional staging of the ballet while taking a few well-conceived liberties, such as opening the ballet in the kitchen, where the aproned staff prepare for the party, and we get our first glimpse of a mouse. Richard Hudson, the set-and-costume designer, provides excellent support. For Act I he has created sets of cool clarity—Biedermeier, circa 1810. And his backdrop for the Snow Scene, moonstruck silver birches which freeze into a pattern of hoarfrost, is stunning. With the costumes of Act II, Hudson outdoes himself, beginning with the Sugar Plum Fairy, who in this production is not a ballerina role but a sort of Orientalist Madonna in shades of peacock blue, lilac, and jade—like a sweetmeat from the pen of Hilary Knight. The eye-popping silhouettes and colors—tassels, stripes, zigzags, crazy quilts—get richer with each divertissement, but are disciplined enough to keep the production looking focused.
Ratmansky, too, is more disciplined than we’re used to seeing. I think this is due to the children. In the past I’ve not been impressed with Ratmansky’s storytelling. He lets himself off too easy, leaning on the same choreographic strategies, settling for irony, and not pushing hard enough for a human touch, a poetic sense of gesture. His characters tend to be abstractions, their dance phrases jammed with steps that exude a frenzied virtuosity but not much else. Working with the children in this ballet, who carry a large part of the storytelling, Ratmansky has had to make phrases that are simpler, more direct, and more true. This imperative has led to moments both hilarious and poignant. I loved the Nutcracker doll’s dance of demonstration, in which he’s a whirring little wonder spitting out nuts faster and faster. And when the doll becomes a real boy, his upper body lays back, his arms fall open, and in stillness he takes the measure of grace. Ratmansky has added a brazen little mouse to the story, a tiny thing with skinny legs and a big belly who taunts and flees like Jerry in Tom and Jerry. I saw Justin Souriau-Levine in the role and you could tell he was having the time of his life.
Ratmansky’s efforts with the children flow into his work for the adults. His classical Snow Scene is very fine, an ensemble in silvery-blue tutus that suggests the killing ferocity of a blizzard. Its conclusion, “snowflakes” falling to the ground to make a cold white graveyard, is surprisingly beautiful. (I couldn’t help thinking of Tolstoy’s Master and Man of 1895.) I especially like the way Ratmansky has handled the two most vaulted pieces in the score: the Act I andante and the Act II adagio. The sixty-four-bar andante is a luxe passageway that begins at battle’s end and leads to the Snow Scene, or as Petipa wrote in his notes to Tchaikovsky: “Here begins emotional music, which changes into a poetic andante, and ends in a grandiose fashion.” This passage is often given over to a pas for a Snow King and Queen. In Balanchine’s nycb production, the passage is surreal: Clara has fainted into a bed of white ruffles that floats about the stage, symbolic of a dream. Ratmansky pushes this idea further and gives that dream a shape. He introduces the grown-up lovers that young Clara and the prince, soul mates on the verge of erotic awareness, hope one day to be. The andante becomes their first adult duet—shy yet impetuous—and the grand adagio of Act II, usually Sugar Plum’s, becomes the formal expression of their idealism.
At the first performance of this Nutcracker—a preview that looked and felt like a premiere—Veronika Part and Marcelo Gomes danced the principal roles of the adult Clara and her Prince. It was right that they should, given that the choreography for these roles appears to have been inspired both by the palpable trust of their partnership and by Part’s special quality of brimming technical purity—a snowy simplicity that can make her seem like magnetic north on the compass. In these passages Ratmansky is hearing newborn love, with its implicit touch of elegy—for what if this love is lost?—and he has choreographed to the high horizon line of Part’s arabesque, the atmospheric perch of her pointe, and the eloquence of her épaulement. The axis upon which these pas were created is not squarely presentational but canted, glancing, and this imparts an air of youth, freshness, and fullness. One can’t help feeling that the partnership here is more between Ratmansky and Part—both Russian, both raised on Tchaikovsky—than between Gomes and Part. Which is not to say that Gomes isn’t a perfect Prince. Part and Gomes were the transcendent presents under this tree.
The production has weaknesses. As a colleague observed, and I agree, this Nutcracker doesn’t reach the level of self-containment that makes for a completely satisfying ballet. I think the reason may be that while Ratmansky hears the ballet, often quite sensitively and originally, he doesn’t wholly see the ballet. The splendid costumes and handsome sets give us all the visual charisma and color we could want. But scenes and ideas don’t always knit up. For instance, in Act I the character of the Nutcracker is a wooden doll carried or propped; a moment later he’s a boy dressed as a wooden doll; and later still he’s wooden again. There are no musical cues as to when the Nutcracker is a doll or a doll-boy, and as Ratmansky has not employed any sleight of hand, the audience must decide whether or not to accept this back-and-forth. Having to decide, however, takes us out of the ballet. Surely there are better ways to work these shifts in perception. Ratmansky needs to find them.
And Drosselmeyer. He is without character definition or a point of view, and the two dancers I saw in the role, though trying hard, were not able to bring him into higher relief. Drosselmeyer is the engine of the ballet. The music for his two sets of wind-up dolls—breezily pacific for Columbine and Harlequin; demonically driven for the Recruit and Canteen Keeper—suggest the elemental extremes within Drosselmeyer’s imagination. In fact, Petipa described the second set of dolls as “a boy-devil and a girl-devil.” Ratmansky’s choreography for these dolls is fascinating, an instance when his “steppy” phrases actually work, giving us a feeling for the intricate structures within these dolls. But Drosselmeyer—what makes him tick? He seems merely a busybody.
Vadim Strukov, who danced the role for many seasons with the Boston Ballet and is the most brilliant Drosselmeyer I’ve ever seen (a Prometheus in black satin), recently told me, “I worked from the theme of ‘the creator.’ The most difficult scene is actually the growth of the tree. You have to make sure that the tree grows because of the strength of Drosselmeyer. It’s Hoffmann and Tchaikovsky, and it’s in the music. Demonic, yes. You have to call on every source to create a path, you can’t call just on something light and bright, you have to call on everything and that means the worst as well. Until a certain moment, the magic or storytelling comes from the hands of Drosselmeyer. But with the battle, the King of Mice, things get out of hand. Drosselmeyer understands that he is losing it, not the battle, everything is out of control. He’s created a world for Clara and then the creation contains him. And at the last moment, this naïveté, this pure heart, this beauty saves the world—she with her shoe.”
Finally, the Waltz of the Flowers was marred by Ratmansky’s inclusion of four bees. No doubt these bees were meant as homage to Petipa’s beehive ending. But they were danced by four tall men, whose flitting and flirting derived from the Mark Morris school of silly, so much so that the number was no longer the glorious blossoming that ushers in the grand pas de deux, but a jokey Waltz of the Bees. I wouldn’t have minded tiny child bees interacting with the flowers, which would have connected Ratmansky’s tiny mouse to a phenomenal truth—that small things make profound differences. Instead, we have these tall men tossing the women into the air—uprooting them. Well bees can’t do that. And the men couldn’t either; they had a lot of trouble with those throws.
The coda of this production is another Ratmansky innovation, a reasonable one that addresses the age-old problem in the libretto—the question of where we are when the ballet draws to a close? Ratmansky brings us into Clara’s bedroom, where she is sleeping, her bed positioned just under a window that looks out on those silver birches. It is snowing. Clara awakens and sees in the dark, on opposite sides of her room, the Nutcracker prince as a man and as a boy. Each fades back into the wings with her approach. She returns to bed and cries for the loss of her dream; then under the covers she finds the Nutcracker doll. It is powerful, this awakening before dawn, the dream still warm, the cold outside the window. We’ve all known that hope, silence, and snow.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 29 Number 7 , on page 17
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