The blooming of a virtuoso

For Alexei Ratmansky’s latest revelation, a deep and vivid Nutcracker, the former Bolshoi director and current American Ballet Theatre resident choreographer has absorbed influences as various as Balanchine and Mark Morris. Yet in spirit, story and choreography this two-hour drama is indelibly his own: at once goofy and wise, theatrical and musical, casually gestural and mindbogglingly virtuosic, entertaining and moving. Despite its setting in the cosily domestic Biedermeier era of 19th-century Germany, it is also thoroughly contemporary.

Like many Nutcrackers, this one offers a child’s-eye view of life’s wonders and terrors. Like many, it reveals our heroine, Clara, stretching towards young adulthood. But its vision of this blooming is all its own – with the fantastical learning to live in peace with the real, the private with the public, the gleefully childlike with the soberly adult, in an intricate psychological design.

The ballet begins in the messy kitchen of the Stahlbaum house, where secrets are spilled and appetites cooked up. Two sassy maids show off the mincing steps they have gleaned from past parties, just as Clara (a persuasive Catherine Hurlin) will learn from the current one. She and her little brother Fritz are salivating over more immediate and childish pleasures, a tray of freshly baked sweets.

Beneath the worktable, a scene-stealing Little Mouse (delightful Justin Souriau-Levine) gnaws on a massive wedge of cheese in a foreshadowing of the larger, more ravenous vermin to come. The Stahlbaum parents steal a swoony kiss. And after everyone has left for the festivities in the living room, Drosselmeyer (Victor Barbee) enters. His wavy locks signal his romantic standing in this stalwartly bourgeois milieu; so does his latest creation, the bewitched nutcracker doll, which he will bestow on his favourite godchild along with his invisible gift for fantasy.

Ratmansky sounds the note of romance lightly but consistently: the life-sized dolls with which Drosselmeyer entertains the guests come in male-female pairs, and Clara’s girlfriends pant after the imperious wizard as if he were Elvis. So the winter wonderland music that swells in the wake of the battle between the mice and the toy soldiers anticipates not only the coming snow but also Clara’s feelings for the boy inside the Nutcracker shell whom she has saved (a sweetly shy Tyler Maloney).

Yet the choreographer does not make the Soviet mistake of having Clara instantly shed her child heart and fall lustily in love, at which point Candyland would only bore her. Rather, she and the boy mix awkward hugs with snowball fights.

When their imagined older selves appear, the children waltz alongside them for as long as they can keep up. (On opening night, a buoyant and slippery Gillian Murphy and an impetuous David Hallberg did the honours as mature princess and prince; at the Friday matinee, it was a coltish Paloma Herrera with a somewhat shell-shocked Cory Stearns.)

The Sugar Plum pas de deux, the apotheosis of this dream romance, sustains a goofy delirium beside a more traditional nobility. Likewise, Ratmansky injects a quartet of begoggled bumblebee men into the unfolding mass of waltzing flowers, models the Russian dancers after the Three Stooges, and has Mother Ginger’s tiny charges do a squat and sassy chain-gang dance with waggling heads and slapping feet (it perfectly becomes them).

He has a special gift for idiosyncrasy, which he celebrates with every low-key, handmade moment and every child – the production abounds in them – allowed his or her fervour and force. (British set and costume designer Richard Hudson brilliantly complements this vision with individually detailed costumes in outlandishly gorgeous hues.)

For the beautiful yet dangerous snowflakes – like Giselle’s manhunting Willis, except instinct not malice leads them to want to hold a warm body in their chilly embrace – Ratmansky uses all the configurations at a balletmaster’s disposal: spritely entrances at the first flutey flakes, jagged diagonals as the snow slants down, columns that move in canon from front to back as the heavenly chorus rises. But he also invents earthbound moves: the hardworking snow, in jagged icicle tiaras and asymmetrical, icy-grey long tutus, collapsing on to the floor in exhausted mounds.

When Drosselmeyer gives Clara the Nutcracker, his attention to her makes the doll grow. That’s how this whole Nutcracker works. Ratmansky restores a sense of wonder to creation. (5/5)

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