Posted on December 20, 2017
Clement Crisp and Peter Brinson wrote pithily of The Nutcracker: “other productions proliferate.” This 1892 ballet is seen across the globe in countless versions and is an obligatory ingredient to the perfect Christmas. Though dancers – and critics – can groan at the annual reappearance of the work, it occupies a special place in our dance culture. For many, it is their first encounter with ballet; it was the first work I danced in as a paid professional. The Nutcracker offers you a sense of progression. Many vocational students swell the ranks of snowflakes and flowers in companies; you graduate to leading a line of dancers; progress to dancing the soloist part within the ensemble, and one day, finally, you might even become the Sugar Plum Fairy atop the Christmas tree.
In this respect, The Nutcracker is a ballet about journeys. Yuletide is, of course, a time for travelling. We travel far and wide to visit friends and family, whilst journeys of different kinds form an important element of the Christian Nativity story, both with Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem and the three Kings from the Orient moving westward on their pilgrimage. Set against the warmth of the Stahlbaum’s Nuremberg home, Clara’s journey from childhood to maturity, from slumber to awakening – like The Sleeping Beauty – reveals something of the epoch in which it was made. The rococo setting of the Land of the Sweets in Act II of The Nutcracker (still visible in Julia Trevelyan Oman’s designs in Peter Wright’s version for The Royal Ballet) reveals the Romantic imagination preoccupied with the deeper, irrational, aspects of the human mind. This is tempered by a sentimental hunger for more innocent times gone by. Much of these feelings are bound up in Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score, where shimmering, anticipatory episodes are resolved in almost orgasmic passages of sound.
Funny, then, to read that Tchaikovsky wrote with dissatisfaction: “I feel a complete impossibility to reproduce musically the Konfiturenberg [The Kingdom of the Sweets].” The beginning of Act II, where Clara usually meets the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier for the first time, can sound like an enchanted menagerie of exotic birds, cooing and calling us in to their sparkling marzipan-frosted world. For me, the music we hear immediately after the Nutcracker has recounted the story of Clara’s bravery to Sugar Plum’s retinue is one of the most gorgeously honeyed passages of the ballet. We have supreme confirmation that all will be well before a spicily bombastic melody played by trumpets tells us to take our seats and settle down for some well-earned entertainment from the subsequent divertissement. Though the music for these divertissements is effective, the penultimate and concluding sections to Act I interest me more. What is now usually choreographed as a pas de deux of ecstatic love for Clara and the newly transfigured Nutcracker was originally conceived as a non-danced sequence. Tchaikovsky’s music here sounds like a heartfelt conversation, starting gently with ideas passed intimately between participants, culminating in a sudden flash of singing joy, a eureka moment that’s made all the more regal by the brass instruments we hear.
My favourite part of any Nutcracker is usually the snowflakes scene, but I have a condition – I don’t appreciate the insertion of a principal couple (a Snow King and Queen) here because it undermines the sterling work of the female corps de ballet in versions that descend from Lev Ivanov’s ideas for this scene. Peter Wright’s version for The Royal Ballet has a beautiful variation on a pas de valse, with curlicuing hands, that perfectly catches the drift of snow on the wind, whilst David Nixon’s choreography for Northern Ballet gives the ladies allegro steps more appropriate for a male variation, all danced with Amazonian aplomb. Alastair Macaulay wrote recently on his Instagram account that Rudolf Nureyev and Violette Verdy established new standards for turn out in their careers; others strove to emulate this. Nureyev’s choreography for 26 snowflakes in his production of The Nutcracker confirms this idea. It is stuffed with exposing body positions that require a dancer to be especially conscientious of the outward rotation of the leg. Some of the unnoticed drama in a dancer’s movements comes from the tension between turn out and turn in. By this I mean a dancer has to highlight moments where the leg is rotated to its maximum, often in exchange for a transfer of position that is less centrifugal. In Nureyev’s choreography, this tension is kept at a rolling boil throughout.
My affection for The Nutcracker always comes back to Tchaikovsky’s music. A musician friend showed me that Tchaikovsky makes emotional complexity from technical simplicity. The Grand pas de deux is based simply on the scales a pianist would use to warm up with. The composer’s use of two diametrically contrasting keys to correspond with both the real and dream worlds highlights the unease between truth and fantasy, capturing the supernatural elements present in the original E T A Hoffman story. Yet I believe my connection to the heart of the music runs deeper. In Alexander Poznansky’s 1996 book Tchaikovsky’s Last Days, the author presents us with two ideas: Tchaikovsky’s Russia was a sexually repressive society, where abnormal sexual practices were sternly penalised, and Tchaikovsky struggled his entire life with the fear of the exposure of what he considered his unnatural, immoral inclinations. Much is written about Tchaikovsky’s “homosexuality and the secrecy it entailed” so that the composer was “always surrounded in a kind of haze and mysterious mist”. Across Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre, amongst much glory, are fragments of sound that pierce the soul: the first note of the Introduction to Swan Lake; the haunting adagio of Symphony No 3; the bittersweet crash at the climax of Sugar Plum’s duet. Where did that plaintive quality come from? It’s music that reminds us of all we love in the world; how it endures against all obstacles, even in the bleakest mid-winter.
Pictured: Karla Doorbar as Clara in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Photograph: Roy Smiljanic.