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Guest Post: A Bunch of Things About George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet

Today, The Craptacular goes where it has not gone before — the dance world. Below, our special dance correspondant, Mark Panzarino, shares his thoughts on George Balanchine’s The Nutracker, which is being shown in cinemas across the country, and on PBS.

In George Balanchine’s 101 Stories of the Great Ballets (written with Francis Mason), he notes that he was always changing his 1954 version of The Nutcracker.  It is well-documented that “Mr. B” — the most famous 20th century neo-classical ballet choreographer — was in constant revision of his  work to suit the needs of his  day. I could not help but wonder while watching last night’s first live-in-HD New York City Ballet cinema-broadcast of this ubiquitous production what the master might change were he still alive today.

Given the recent trend of hyper-awareness of bullying everywhere — thanks, Glee — for the first time, I noted that most of the Act 1 choreography for young dancers is not designed with kindness.  Fritz, Marie’s brother, pulls  his sister’s hair (twice); children repeatedly tug on Drosselmeier’s coattails to get his attention; they steal and break each other’s’ toys; grab at snacks; and  harass each other with horns and drums en masse.  Were Mr. B here to see Jonah Mowry’s YouTube video or the “It Gets Better Project”, would he have adjusted his work?  Certainly, the choreographer knew how to tap into the zeitgeist.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, as it stands, is about spirit, and tonight’s orchestra kept our spirits light.  Clotilde Otranto conducted with sforzando throughout.  The orchestra sounded particularly fine-tuned and composed.   The “Snow” scene certainly sacrificed clarity for speed (as did the additional Sleeping Beauty passage), yet this was a small price to pay, given the full presentation of  both acts, combined with Kelly Ripa’s introduction and intermission.

Kelly Ripa, by the way, who hosted, appeared more than slightly ripa’d.  Yes, she imitated a ballerina in a tutu at an audition.  Yes, she told the pre-pubescent-bunheaded girls to come to her for ballet advice.  Yes, she mispronounced “ballet.” Fun! Kelly Ripa is the new Alec Baldwin, with significantly more facework.

In Act 2’s Land of the Sweets, many featured principals in the company stood out — Tiler Peck in the Marzipan variation was especially musical (reminding me of Kyra Nichols), and Daniel Ulbricht added unique twists to his Candy Cane, while Megan Fairchild was an unadventurous if competent Sugarplum Fairy.

Ashley Bouder performed as Dew Drop in the “Flowers” section. (She and I have frequently butted heads on NYCB policies and politics via Twitter, but except for one short comment, I have yet to voice my opinion about her artistry.)  Ms. Bouder has often been subject to harsh artistic criticism by the press.  This is completely understandable: her technical capabilities surpass every other dancer within the company.  To measure somebody with such prowess and artistic potential by the same standards as any other would be demeaning to her and to the form.  No, it’s probably not fair, but there it is.  She’s better than the rest: she’s the best.  One watches her work and sees a gift being squandered and stifled.  Her sense of center and balance and strength and dynamic and clarity and well… the list could go on.  And there she is, performing second lead in a company which specializes in one choreographer who passed away 28 years ago, whose most notable works were created more than 20 years before that.

This is not to say Ms. Bouder is not without he flaws.  Her initial attack can be needle-nosed, especially for “soft” roles such as Dew Drop (a problem of interpretation other critics have noted before, particularly in Swan Lake).  I don’t think her facial expressions are as problematic as others have detailed — she’s no Kelly Ripa — though I do think a make-up reevaluation and brow-line softening might be in order.  She could do with greater release and breath through her trapezius. One wonders if she has levels of ballon short of 747-height.  These are such flaws?!

No. Her sole flaw lies in the limited range she allows her work. Perhaps Ms. Bouder could take a lesson from Mr. B’s original notes and make more changes within her own work, much as he did with his during his lifetime.  The trick, it would seem, for such an outstanding artist, is to have a greater pliancy, instead of forcing her idiom to remain frozen in place.  “Ballets have short lives,” Mr. B said.  So do dancers.  One wonders what Ms. Bouder’s next move might be.

photo: New York Times

Mark Sean Panzarino was hand-selected at the age of 6 to study with Nina Youshkevich, protégé of Bronislava Nijinska. His education continued at the School of American Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet School, and the David Howard Dance Center, before joining Miami City Ballet as an apprentice in 1990. He has performed, choreographed, and taught at Broadway Dance Center, Dance Theatre of Harlem School, American Ballet Russe, Metropolitan Repertory Ballet, the Choreographic Lab at Steps on Broadway, Renaissance Dance Ensemble, Eugene Lang College at the New School, Tampa Bay City Ballet, InMotion Dance Company, and Texas Dance Theatre. Additional artistic projects include a sculptural work of mixed media featured prominently in the lobby a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A book of short poems was published in 2002. Mark is an ordained minister in the First Church of Atheism. He lives in Manhattan with a 14-year-old Dalmatian.

{ 6 comments… add one }

  • Alys Swan-Jackson December 15, 2011, 5:41 am

    Hoping to catch this production in a cinema here in London. Fabulous, insightful review. More on ballet from Mr. Panzarino .

  • Richard December 15, 2011, 6:09 pm

    I am relieved to hear someone give voice my to own perplexity the past two days: Bouder really *is* technically the best female dancer they have. When I attended the live broadcast Tuesday night, during the Dew Drop sequences I kept blurting out “My God, LOOK at that!” to the undoubted annoyance of the row in front of me.

    As I live on the opposite side of the continent, my viewing possibilities are mostly limited to on-line videos and still photos, so I have no idea what everyone in New York is seeing on a regular basis. On which note, this aside: in every publicity photo of Bouder that I have ever seen, I have never once seen so much as a finger out of place. With other female NYCB dancers, particularly during action shots, all kinds of ephemeral flaws are clearly visible (without naming names): shoulder up in a pique arabesque — or just permanently up around the ears, period — fingers sticking out in what Lynda Yourth used to refer to as “the claw”, turned in fouettes, distorted epaulement, head angle off. Never with Bouder. It’s as if every single muscle in her body automatically knows exactly what it’s supposed to do. What I love about her arms is that you DON’T notice them, because they’re not trying to draw attention to themselves — instead, they’re perfectly integrated into everything else her body is doing at that particular moment. Check them out sometime.

    I only saw Bouder perform live once as a soloist in 2007 without knowing who she was. But there was no ignoring her when she was on stage — and I don’t mean because of her natural tendency to flirt with the audience (which I suppose can get on one’s nerves with repeated exposure; I found it charming at the time). I mean she just takes over the stage. And my experience in the Nutcracker broadcast the other night (four and a half years later) was no different.

    So these thoughts have been occupying me ever since: Why has she fallen out of favor? Why aren’t they working with her at NYCB to capitalize on and add to her phenomenal abilities? Why the Alastair McCauley attacks (especially since he used to be her biggest fan)? She’s got the strength and attack of Plisetskaya and the technical perfection of Cynthia Gregory. Why isn’t someone working with her to channel all that energy into something that could be so much greater?

    As to solutions, I absolutely agree on the makeup front. First of all, lose those eyelashes, they’re too thick and too black and really clash with the hair and skin color (think Kathy Griffin). What’s worse, I fear they contribute substantially to what McCauley interprets as “tough-grained hardness”. Second — and not being a professional dancer, this idea may be subject to real-world restrictions I am unaware of — but Gelsey Kirkland is in the same town, for God’s sake. She started out with the same degree of attack and technical perfection but managed to turn it into something entirely different. She’s also a phenomenal teacher. So why not work with her? Third, and again I agree, get away from this company (or at least get away more), which seems to have slotted Bouder into a particular niche and isn’t doing her any favors — and particularly not allowing her the space to develop as an artist.

    • Mark Panzarino December 16, 2011, 11:31 pm

      Thank you for your feedback, Richard!

      You’ll find some lovely videos of Ashley in rehearsal (as well as some less developed performance videos) on youtube. The one of her working on Sleeping Beauty at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYeWlcN4dxI reflects all of the dynamics you describe.

      But make no mistake. I have every confidence these are not “automatic,” but skills that have been worked out with discipline, over decades. So yes, Ashley is very talented, and it can be disconcerting for an artist of such high acclaim and level to leave “her comfort zone.” I do hope she finds more courage to do so (even if within NYCB, which is probably unlikely)…she can continue to grow to even greater levels withing the industry and within her capabilities.

  • Natalie December 16, 2011, 11:59 pm

    Personally I think it’s all too possible to become not only typecast with regards to roles in a company, especially a Balanchine company, but also to typecast one’s own dancing. It’s important to find people outside of your everyday world to work with, who see a different personality and attack within you than the ones who see you everyday. Outside coaching, and yes, perhaps an entirely different company. Guesting and working with others for sure.

    As for the bullying part of Act 1, it’s refreshing that something “old” in terms of the storyline and date in which it was set, is true to life. Christmas time and holidays bring out the worst in children, who have been shushed by parents scrambling to get things done, disrupted bedtimes due to not only the parent’s changed schedules, but because of added parties and activities not in their normal daily life the other 10.5 months of the year. Hence for example the birthday child at one’s own party who embarrassingly has a tantrum.

    I would hope Mr. B would change nothing. How refreshing that something can be “real” without it being scorned.

    • Mark Panzarino December 17, 2011, 1:20 pm

      Thank you for reading, Natalie!

      Perhaps you’re right about the representation of children in his version. I just happened to notice -due to the cameras and selective views chosen by videography?- that, besides the bullying, there is scant else that the children offer up in this version. These are particularly mean kids. The only exceptions to this are Marie, and of course, the young nephew whom she fantasizes about later on! Given his decorum, it’s no wonder he remains in her dreams.

      From a greater point of view, I wonder how the Balanchine Trust handles changes and updates to his work at all. This must be an difficult and important matter for them to address. How do you feel about it in general?

      Again, thanks for reading, and for your comments!

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