|| The Phoenix
|| November 19, 2012
|| Jeffrey Gantz
"Without The Nutcracker, there'd be no ballet in America as we know it." That was Boston Ballet general manager D. David Brown speaking, back in 1986, and it would be hard to argue the point. America is, as the title of Jennifer Fisher's 2003 book puts it, Nutcracker Nation, the country that's taken Peter Tchaikovsky's holiday ballet to its heart. And nowhere more so than in Boston. In its 1990s heyday at the Wang Theatre, Boston Ballet's Nutcracker was the most-watched production anywhere, drawing as many as 140,000 spectators a year, and accounting for well over half of the company's annual box office. It's become a Boston tradition, like the Marathon, or Fourth of July on the Esplanade.
This year, however, Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen has reconceived the production, giving it a new time frame, a new beginning, and a new ending. He's also replaced the Helen Pond–Herbert Senn sets from 1978 and David Walker's costumes from 1995 with new designs by Robert Perdziola, whose credits include American Ballet Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera. It's a big gamble he's taking with the company's cash cow; if it doesn't come off, there might be no ballet in Boston as we know it.
The odd thing about The Nutcracker is that the ballet barely registered when it premiered, on December 6, 1892, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. It played on a bill with the Tchaikovsky opera Iolanthe, and neither work fared well with the critics. In Russia, The Nutcracker enjoyed just 11 performances that season and reappeared sporadically. The ballet did spread to Europe and eventually America, and you could argue that what ignited interest here was the"Nutcracker Suite" segment of the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, with Cossack thistles exploding through the trepak, Chinese mushrooms bowing and scurrying, fish swirling sensuously to the Arabian dance's English horn, and fairies gliding balletically on ice. George Balanchine himself played Herr Drosselmeier in the New York City Ballet production of The Nutcracker that aired on CBS Christmas night in 1957 and 1958. Rudolf Nureyev brought his version to the Royal Ballet in 1968; Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland starred in the ABT Nutcracker that aired on PBS in 1977. Soon auteur productions were springing up. Mark Morris's The Hard Nut set the actionin '50s/'60s America and gave the Nutcracker an Elvis pompadour. Patrice Bartre placed the mice with Russian revolutionaries. Maurice Béjart turned his Nutcracker into a story of "Elle, the Mother," with a carrot-haired Félix the Cat, an angel playing the accordion, and dancers in Mao outfits riding bicycles.
Boston Ballet, however, has never strayed far from the 1816 E.T.A. Hoffmann novella, Nutcracker and Mouse King, that provided the libretto for Tchaikovsky's score. Andover the decades, the company's warm and cozy production has been rife with details, some clever, some sentimental, some funny. Walker drew on the English mummers' play St. George and the Dragon, dressing the Nutcracker as St. George, in white and red, and the Mouse King as the Turkish Knight, in green and gold with turban and scimitar. (The Mouse King also sported a cat's-headtrophy belt.) The Silberhauses' grandfather clock was topped with an owl, the enemy of mice, and at one point Drosselmeier, himself a watchmaker, appeared at the top of the clock and flapped the wings of his cloak. In the middle of the party's evening-ending Grossvater Tanz, Clara's Grandpa and Grandma always broke into an out-of-control polka; there were also years when Grandpa, enjoying a second childhood, stole Fritz's new hobby horse and rode it around the room. During the battle scene, four baby mice would parody the Dance of the Cygnets from Swan Lake, and when the Mouse King went down, a corps of mice ran on with a Red Cross stretcher and attempted CPR.
Many Bostonians have grown up with The Nutcracker as part of their lives. Nissinen, who was born in Finland, did not. "I was in the Kirov Ballet School, I was age 17, when I did my first Nutcracker," he tells me. "It was the grand pas de deux, on the Mariinsky stage. I wasn't the baby mouse or anything else; I started the other way around. I had seen the grand pas de deux, but I had never seen the full version until I went to Russia."
What's more, he was a little taken aback when he arrived in Boston in 2002 and saw his new company's production. "I thought it was this holiday extravaganza that had everything possible packed into it and more. I felt it was extremely gimmicky.I t was like six chefs in the kitchen. It looked like a Hollywood variety-show Christmas extravaganza to me. Yes, I was impressed with the magnitude of the machinery, and how many shows they did. But it was like a holiday revue for me rather than a Nutcracker."
His idea, Nissinen continues, was "to go back to the original intent of the thing." But he hadn't gotten very far before, in 2003, the Wang Center, which had housed Boston Ballet's Nutcracker since 1968, declined to renew the company's contract for the production, replacing it in 2004 with a touring version of The Radio City Christmas Spectacular Starring the Radio City Rockettes. The Ballet scrambled to find a new home for The Nutcracker; it wound up at the Colonial Theatre, with a smaller stage, a smaller orchestra pit, and smaller audiences. (The Wang seats 3600, the Colonial 1700.) In 2005, the production moved to the 2400-seat Boston Opera House, which was an improvement. But everything had been scaled to fit the Wang; the Christmas tree, which had risen from 15 to 40 feet there, could go no higher than 30 feet at the Opera House.
Besides which, the production was aging. "We were at the point," says Nissinen,"that we would have had to spend a quarter-million dollars a year keeping the old ship afloat. So we decided, instead of waiting until The Nutcracker is not working, let's invest in it and make it better and give it oxygen forthe next 15 to 20 years."
He had no doubt, he says, that moving forward was the right decision. But he still had to find a designer."I was almost a year behind the schedule that I had self-imposed," he recalls, "but I felt that I didn't have the right match, and I was going to postpone this for another year if I didn't have the right match. Then I started talking with Robert Perdziola, and it was clear that he embraced the concept of not going the Disney direction, the Broadway-show direction."
So what direction did Nissinen want to go in? "My way of looking at the story," he says,"is that we're seeing the whole thing through the eyes of this little girl called Clara. There's a Christmas celebration, and she's all excited, and there's an uncle who's a little bit outside of the norm, and the kids and Clara love that, because that's how they are. The story is also about Clara'sgrowing up, turning from a girl into a little woman. She takes her love interest and fascination with the Nutcracker to a sort of romantic level and dreams about it, and yet it's unattainable. It's her journey."
Boston Ballet's new Nutcracker will be taking a journey of its own. The '80s and early-'90s version was a Late Victorian Nutcracker whose costume quirks included two little boys in kilts. (Scottish author James Macpherson's Ossian poems were very popular in Germany.) Walker's costume design in 1995 moved the time frame back to 1840 orso, with the party guests in pastel shades that echoed the Mariinsky blue of the Silberhaus drawing room.
Now, Nissinen is taking it back still farther. "I went about1820s," he says. "I talked with Robert, and the previous productionwas sort of 1840s, 1850s, where everything was huge, the ladies' costumes for the party had extra hips and puffy arms, and we decided to go for the Empire style, where it's much more in line with the dancers' bodies, and showcase a more understated kind of sophistication. We decided to keep the place as southern Germany, as in the original, and try to highlight the contrast between reality and dream."
But many elements, hes ays, will be new. "The opening will take place in a square, and then there's Herr Drosselmeier's puppet-theater scene with street kids, urchins on stage, watching it, and that turns into a town scene, and we found a very clever way to do the entrance into the party scene. And there are the children who dance, but now there are three children who are younger than that, so they're in the party scene, but they aren't participating in the dances because they're too young. We're trying to stretch the family structure a bit. And the battle is different. The Nutcracker is way more mechanical, until he starts to breathe."
Nissinen is looking atthe second act, he says, "as the Nutcracker's kingdom that's ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker. I'm not emphasizing the Kingdom of Sweets part; it's definitely in heaven, dance heaven, but you have a feeling that it's much more royalty. I'm tying the national dances to some of the dolls that the kids have got in the first act. The national dances are in celebration of Clara's saving the Nutcracker's life, dancers sharing their national pride."
Just as this is a more adult Nutcracker in concept, it's more muted in color, as a tour of Boston Ballet's costume shop and a dress rehearsal of the second act at its Clarendon Street studio make clear. Drosselmeier is still in black, but the subtle ribbing of his jacket, the even more subtle striping of his trousers, and the double row of buttons on his waistcoat evoke a period elegance. The Snow King's jacket is patterned with snowflakes and fir branches. The SugarPlum Fairy has two costumes, one pink, one more like brown sugar that she changes into for the grand pas de deux; both tutus are brushed at the edges with gold flakes that Perdziola himself hand painted. There's pale green and rose for the Pastoral trio, ocher and burgundy for the Arabian woman, trousers striped in maroon and blue and gold for the Russian men. What really pop are the Nutcracker's orange-red jacket, the full-skirted coats and plumed hats for the Page children (replacing the Angels at the outset of act two), and the new Harlequin outfits for the Polichinelles.
The lines, as Nissinen points out, are simpler: Clara, in her dove-blue, Empire-waisted walking dress, with bonnet and muff, could be a young Jane Austen heroine. There are 350 costumes in all, in wool, silk, cotton, linen, and many blends; everything is beautifully sewn and fabulously detailed, with 200,000 jewels in total. And everything looks expensive; one only hopes the detail will read when the dancers are on stage.
The sets are painted flats. The Silberhaus drawing room — here more like a ballroom — is grand and ornate in its rich browns, with a central alcove framing the 42-foot tree. The backdrop for Snow has a lovely birch forest replacing the usual evergreens. And the palace of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince is worthy of LouisXVI, with Fragonard-like depictions of the divertissement dancers on the ceiling. There are, in other words, many reasons to think that this Nutcracker will be a wonderful ballet as well as a wonderful holiday entertainment.
And the new ending? It picks up on what the company did in 2004 at the Colonial. "Clara will be waking up on a couch," says Nissinen, "and to her surprise she does find the Nutcracker as a doll, and she will be disappointed that it was a dream. But in the second act, there's a moment where she's been given a crown, in appreciation for saving the Nutcracker's life. And the ballet will finish withher touching her head and the crown is still there, and her eyes light up, and that's the end."