Posted on December 12, 2018
Last year I cast a general gaze over The Nutcracker and how Tchaikovsky’s music reveals it as a work of art more deeply layered than any bauble-dripping fir tree. Though we see it year after year, aspects of the ballet continue to enchant, engage and resonate with us differently on each viewing. The climactic pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier that takes place in the Kingdom of the Sweets flickers in my mind all winter because it poses more questions than it answers. The dance melds pure classicism and stately regality with an emotional sweep that is at odds with these rather one-dimensional characters. Who are these two monarchs and why did Tchaikovsky give them music that encapsulates both light and dark? I won’t be able to provide intimate answers about the pas de deux because I’ve never worked on it. Instead I’m offering a Christmas stocking of thoughts from the wings about what this pas de deux means to me.
The designs by Julia Trevelyan Oman for Peter Wright’s 1984 production for The Royal Ballet have become an obsession for me. You could recently see them in a global cinema relay of The Nutcracker from Covent Garden. Trevelyan Oman creates a world of stunning naturalistic detail for Act I that takes flight as a gilded, rococo-inflexed fantasia for the ballet’s second act. The ivory and gold gates that surround the dance space are bewitching to modern eyes because they speak of a lineage of designers, including Lila de Nobili and Franco Zeffirelli, that make reality look as beautiful as a painting. My attraction to the designs has taken on a greater focus this Christmas because I’ve recently worked on Frederick Ashton’s 1968 Enigma Variations, the first piece Trevelyan Oman designed for ballet’s own English Romantic. The detail of the lace trim on a costume for a character like the youthful Dorabella in Ashton’s ballet has the same gloriously antique, gossamer feeling that Oman’s Nutcracker designs convey. The colour palette of Sugar Plum’s costume – gold, cream, and a pink that looks both pastel and coral in different lights – is paradoxically opulent and muted. There will be those that disagree, but the white wigs the couple wears pick up on rococo excess whilst adding a dusting of camp: perfectly welcome at Christmas.
To the honeyed timbre of harps, the couple come out from behind marzipan encrusted doors and assuredly walk two individual circles mirroring one another, like the flat faces of old world maps. Walking is one of the most difficult things to execute elegantly as a classical dancer. In some ways, this device is a less bombastic version of the walk-around Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund execute during their wedding pas deux in Act III of The Sleeping Beauty, a ballet Petipa made two years before Lev Ivanov’s festive offering. As the adage progresses from independence to support, the pregnancy in the offering of hands between Sugar Plum and the cavalier speaks of bygone chivalry. The repeated use of a développé front mirrors the passionate acceleration of the bows of the string instruments Tchaikovsky has used here. A supported pirouette has all the heady dizziness of shared love, only to resolve to formal detachment as the cavalier helps the ballerina to balance on two crossed legs on pointe, arms rosily crossing the front of her stomach to rest in demi-seconde: a beautiful curve of the arms at the body’s side that echoes the shape of a domed roof or vaulted ceiling.
This shape highlights stylistic elements about this pas deux that feel foreign to many dancers today. In a world of repertoires populated by neo-classicists and contemporary masters, elements of port de bras where the shape of the arms are “just-so” – a soft curve that invites a spiral through the entire body – become an important talisman of dance heritage. In footage posted online showing Marianela Nuñez in The Royal Ballet’s cinema relay, you see her execute two arabesques, one where the leg nearest the audience goes up, immediately followed by the upstage leg moving to a high angle perpendicular with her body. The front arm curls into a soft crescent at her eye level: she is offering altruistically to spectators, but also admiring her own sensuousness. This kind of contained exultation is key to classical dancing, particularly in poses where arms act in opposition to the legs. One unusual but distinctive position in this pas de deux comes after a leg is raised high to the side of the ballerina’s body, only to retract humbly in to a parallel retiré position as Sugar Plum releases her spine in to a luscious back bend supported by her partner. It’s always stuck in my mind because of the apparent incongruity of a turned-in shape in a pas de deux that speaks of royalty. In classical dance, virtue and rank is identified by the outward rotation of the leg.
The final pose of the pas de deux is also unusual. Sugar Plum is leaned off balance in a low arabesque so she resembles a crescent moon, male arm mirrors female arm. It’s delightfully informal for this couple; the physical sweep of the movement is like the swoon you feel in your chest at moments of high emotion. What does this mean after Tchaikovsky’s music has resulted in such a bittersweet climax bars before? The subsequent solos that follow do not offer us a great insight in to their relationship or as individual character’s; it is, again, Tchaikovsky’s music that captures our hearts. Sugar Plum’s solo accentuates the action of the feet, the passing of one leg over the other, and the famous gargouillades is the apex of this idea. Though I’m swept up with the ebullience of this couple’s coda, I don’t hold my breath like I do during the crystalline adage. Perhaps this is the point; one doesn’t have to make sense of the beauty. Sugar Plum and her cavalier offer an ideal image of nobility and dignity in counterpoint to Tchaikovsky’s plaintive, passionate music. For one magic Christmas moment, the couple occupies a place where we can pour all of our unseen, wild yearnings so that they can be civilised in front of our eyes. Under the glitter of the tutu, is the glisten of a tear.
Pictured: The Royal Ballet’s Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov in The Nutcracker. Photograph by Alastair Muir, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.