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Balanchine’s Nutcracker

Posted on January 21, 2020

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It’s become a habit that I think about The Nutcrackereach Christmas for this blog, even on the years when I haven’t danced in it. Tchaikovksy and Lev Ivanov’s ballet is so integral to a dancer’s DNA it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas unless you’re performing in a version somewhere. Christmas has now been and gone, but I still spent some time in the New Year reflecting on this festive ballet. I’ve mentioned that Tchaikovsky’s music has gem-like qualities – the glistening tension between light and dark is what makes the ballet take off in my imagination, and a work like The Nutcrackeralso offers dancers and spectators a space to acknowledge the triumphs and disappointments, the acquisitions gained and the skins shed over a year.

The Royal Ballet gave Peter Wright’s staging of the ballet a rest for 2019 in favour of Ninette de Valois’ buoyant production of Coppélia. Similarly, Scottish Ballet premiered Christopher Hampson’s The Snow Queen instead of presenting Peter Darrell’s The Nutcracker, but you could still see the ballet in versions by English National Ballet at the London Coliseum, and Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome and the Royal Albert Hall, both traditional productions that have respective virtues.

In Salt Lake City, Ballet West celebrated the 75th anniversary of William Christensen’s production of The Nutcracker. Christensen helped found the oldest classical ballet company on the west coast, San Francisco Ballet, where this production had its premiere in 1944. Though this was a remarkable historical milestone for ballet outside Europe, it is really George Balanchine’s 1954 production for New York City Ballet, and its subsequent television broadcast, that ensured the ballet’s place in popular culture in the US. With costumes by long-term collaborator Karinska, and sets by Armenian artist Rouben Ter-Arutunian, Balanchine’s choreography for the classic is full of invention, demonstrating how the master choreographer absorbed his training in Russia and melded it with a dynamism that was all his own.

In my Christmas 2018 blog, I gave some personal thoughts on the choreography of the Grand Pas de Deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier in Wright’s version, which is based on Ivanov’s 1892 original, and how many elements highlight a dance heritage that is beginning to seem foreign to ballet today. A friend urged me to look at other versions of the duet and consider what conclusions I could draw in comparison. I’ve never danced in Balanchine’s production, but have enjoyed watching it and noticing elements that highlight particularities of Balanchine’s canon.

The adage for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier has a grandeur that means the dance comfortably sits next to some of Balanchine’s other grand pas de deux, such as the duet in Diamonds, or the second movement in Symphony in CWhere these two ballets have an almost tragic sublimation at their core, Balanchine’s Nutcracker offers sharp vitality.A courtly walk around, reflecting Ivanov’s choreography, is punctuated by a brisk piqué onto pointe by Sugar Plum to a crossed fourth position for both legs and arms. The crossed fourth position in the arms, where one crowns the head and the other cradles itself in front of the navel, is typical in Balanchine choreography and can look slightly old-fashioned. The position is French in tone, and doesn’t have the declarative quality of open fourth.  

Nevertheless, Balanchine moves the dance swiftly on, with the ballerina turning her back to the audience, to then face us again and execute an extreme grand ronde de jambe that concludes in one of this pas de deux’s most striking images: the ballerina behind her cavalier in a dramatic crossed arabesque penché. It is a repeated position that encapsulates a sense of risk and is a covert harbinger of the type of dramatic swoops into penché arabesque Balanchine developed for Suzanne Farrell in Diamonds. Similarly, this also recalls Allegra Kent in Symphony in C.

Have a look for yourself and experience some of the thrilling virtuosity exhibited by Darci Kistler and Damien Woetzel in the pas de deux. Balanchine gives his regal couple the same type of exultant partnered port de bras, each arm delicately wreathing the space around their partner’s head to offer balance for transfers of weight. The decorative, above the shoulder line partnering is seen in many Balanchine’s ballets – I’m thinking particularly of Emeralds here, or even the slow movement before the ballerina’s second solo in Theme and Variations. This aspect recalls a comment made by Ballets Russes scholar Lynn Garafola when talking about Mikhail Fokine’s innovations in his pas de deux for Les Sylphides. She notes that the couple “reach out to one another in an act of willed intimacy”; it is a sentiment that is not only wholly appropriate for Christmas, but also highlights the flow of things and how, with each New Year, new solutions come out of the old.

Pictured: New York City Ballet’s Lauren Lovette and Joseph Gordon in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photograph by Erin Baiano.

Daniel Pratt was born in south London, and trained with Janie Harris and Stella Farrance. He attended The Royal Ballet School Associates Programme, and then Central School of Ballet. He is a dancer with Sarasota Ballet and has written a number of articles for Dancing Times.

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