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George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

The Nutcracker (1892) [100:00]
Choreography by George Balanchine
Dr Stahlbaum - Ask La Cour
Frau Stahlbaum - Gwyneth Muller
Marie - Fiona Brennan
Fritz - Maximillian Brooking Landegger
Grandparents - Stephanie Zungre and David Prottas
Herr Drosselmeier - Adam Hendrickson
His nephew (the nutcracker) - Colby Clark
The sugarplum fairy - Megan Fairchild
Her cavalier - Joaquine De Luz
New York City Ballet
Children of the School of American Ballet
New York City Ballet Orchestra/Clotilde Otranto
rec. David H. Koch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, 14 December 2011
Filmed in High Definition
Mastered from an HD source
Picture format: 1080i, 16:9
Sound formats: PCM stereo, DTS-HD MA 5.0 Surround Sound
Region code: A / B / C
C MAJOR Blu-ray 738704 [110 mins]

In some senses this new Blu-ray release arrives pre-judged. George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, as it is properly billed - and, indeed, officially registered thus as a trademark - has been performed annually without fail by New York City Ballet (NYCB) since its 1954 premiere and is, so the booklet notes inform us, seen live by more than 100,000 people every year. Those facts alone would suggest that there must be something rather good about it.

There are, in fact, several very positive and obvious points to be made on its behalf. In the first place, it's very much a conservative production in that it's both set at the expected time and place - a late 19th/early 20th century upper middle class family home - and danced to Tchaikovsky's music. It isn't always, admittedly, the most visually exciting: the rather sparsely dressed Act 1 set is a disappointment, though I guess that it's been kept uncluttered to free up space for a very large contingent of dancers and for a Christmas tree that weighs more than 2000 lbs and eventually grows to an impressive 41 feet in height. But the Victorian/Edwardian setting will nonetheless be enough on its own to please those traditionally minded viewers whose taste doesn't extend to those avant garde and off the wall versions that are frequently seen these days (review).

Secondly, this is a production that is bright and colourful, with constant activity to divert and delight the eye. Indeed, according to those booklet notes, NYCB's entire roster of more than 150 dancers and musicians is deployed, which isn't counting a plentiful supply of energetic children from the company's school. This, it's fair to say, isn't a production that's going to bore you.

In the third place, it utilises George Balanchine's choreography which, while openly acknowledging its roots in the productions which he had known as a student and tyro dancer in Russia, is distinguished by a wealth of delightfully inventive and much admired individual refinements. While I don't have space here to explore that intriguing and finely-achieved artistic balance, I would refer interested readers to chapter 3 of Robert Greskovic's Ballet: a complete guide (London, 1998) where the author examines Balanchine's Nutcracker choreography in some technical - yet easily intelligible - detail.

There is, as I have already observed, no doubt that this veteran NYCB production has proved itself a big popular hit over the years. Nonetheless, individual performances inevitably vary one from the other, so that any single one has to be appraised on its own specific merits. How, then, does the particular performance of 14 December 2011 stack up? And how well has it been preserved in this filmed version?

The first thing that needs to be assessed is, of course, the quality of the dancing. Going back to the original 1892 model, Balanchine uses real children to portray both Marie - or Clara as she's often named in other productions - and the animated nutcracker. He then retains them as spectating youngsters in Act 2 so that you won't, therefore, find their adult personae joining in the jollifications in the kingdom of sweets. That leaves the sugar plum fairy and her cavalier as the focus of the score's more romantic moments and this performance preserves first class accounts of those roles from Megan Fairchild and Joaquine De Luz. They are both highly experienced dancers who expertly combine technical assurance with surely judged artistic sensibilities and, as such, they deservedly win the evening's biggest ovation from the Big Apple audience. The rest of the dancing is of a very high standard too. As is usual in any Nutcracker, the most obviously crowd-pleasing of the Act 2 sequence of divertissements are especially well received, with Coffee (Teresa Reichlen) and Tea (Antonio Carmena) making good impressions and the lead Candy Cane (Daniel Ulbricht) generating general delight as he jumps spectacularly, repeatedly and literally through hoops.

The obviously accomplished and well drilled NYCB corps de ballet also deserves a mention. The choreography certainly makes the most of them, as demonstrated most clearly in a finely managed account of the Waltz of the flowers. Led, unusually, by one particular featured dancer (Dewdrop, performed here by Ashley Bouder), it's a visually enchanting number that wipes the floor with many competing and often over-elaborate versions - not least Rudolf Nureyev's eye-bogglingly dreadful all-gold conception that was released at Christmas a couple of years ago (review).

The children in the opening scene at the Stahlbaum family party are an important element in any Nutcracker's opening Act. Their natural liveliness provides a welcome contrast to the stereotypically staid and restrained "Victorian" manner of the adult guests and, even when plentiful in number, their smaller physical size doesn't obscure the audience's view of what the grown ups are getting up to at the back of the stage. There are certainly lots of children in this NYCB production, almost all of them evidently trained to a high standard and well integrated with the rest of the company. Clearly high-spirited and having the time of their lives, they nonetheless keep their enthusiasm in check sufficiently to deliver professional performances. Just one or two are, however, clearly very young indeed and, understandably, unprepared for public performance. Their occasional uncertainty, hesitation, lack of coordination with their peers and general air of being not quite certain what they're doing will no doubt seem charmingly naive and even endearing to their doting parents. Others, however - and here I detect my inner Ebenezer Scrooge coming to life - may quickly find them an irritating distraction. Dr and Frau Stahlbaum should, perhaps, have dispatched them early upstairs with a bowl of cold gruel ("Bah, humbug, meine Kinder!") and invited a few slightly older and more skilled replacements to the party.

Sticking, for the moment, with the children, there is a specific issue too with the prominent non-dancing role of Drosselmeier's nephew who is eventually transformed into the nutcracker. Six decades ago Balanchine conceived him as a sort of simpering Freddy Bartholemew/Little Lord Fauntleroy figure - but as times and sensibilities have changed that image now appears inappropriately camp or even unintentionally comic. When even that charismatic tyke Macaulay Culkin, who famously appeared in a filmed NYCB performance in the early 1990s, couldn't make a convincingly believable stab at it, I'm afraid that young Colby Clark, for all his undoubted and considerable talent, confidence and stage presence, doesn't really have much of a chance.

The company's orchestra and its conductor - to whom I will return briefly in a moment - perform the score entirely idiomatically and with close attention to the dancers' practical requirements. One particularly enjoyable moment occurs in the course of the first Act when the unnamed leader of the orchestra appears in a more prominent than usual role by contributing an unexpected but atmospheric and winningly-played solo interlude. Sounding vaguely familiar, it turns out to be something that Tchaikovsky had discarded from the score of Swan lake and that Balanchine decided to interpolate at that point.

An obviously skilled team has been employed to film this performance. Cameras are well positioned and director Alan Skog clearly has a very good eye for the best shots. He is especially skilled at selecting appropriate close-ups when a single dancer is - or ought to be - the focus of our attention. Thankfully, unlike some directors of ballet for the screen, he is also well aware that the whole point of the corps de ballet in the classical repertoire is that its dancers shouldn't be individually distinguished one from another and should be viewed en masse. Thus, the intricate and usually symmetric choreographic patterns that Balanchine creates for them during the Dance of the snowflakes are well presented by being generally shown in long-shot, though with medium-shots inserted for a little visual variety at points where nothing of the essential choreographic creation is thereby lost.

The booklet boasts that the finale’s shocking-pink set is lit by one million watts of power, but the visual image is equally pin-sharp even when the Stahlbaum house is supposedly illuminated only by its Christmas tree lights at midnight. This disc offers a fine example of Blu-Ray technology at its best, with no suggestion whatsoever of the juddering effect that can occasionally affect quickly-executed lateral tracking shots in that format. The sound quality too is well engineered, exhibiting a finely balanced clarity that lays bare plenty of the fine orchestral detail that underpins the on-stage action.

The accompanying booklet is, however, a somewhat odd affair. Tchaikovsky, for instance, whom you might consider somewhat central to the whole exercise, gets not a single mention in the list of credits or on the disc's front cover. He is lucky to get one passing mention in the ridiculously brief booklet notes and in an easily-missed passing and rather yucky puff - Tchaikovsky's beloved melodies transport the young and young at heart to a magical world - on the rear cover.

Meanwhile and in similar fashion there appears, for some reason, to have been a Stalinist-style air-brushing of the identity of the conductor. Her name is not given at all on either the front or back of the packaging nor anywhere in the booklet credits or notes. As the film's opening credits confirm, though, she is Brazilian-born Clotilde Otranto. Her conducting benefits enormously from the fact that, before taking her place in the conductor's podium at Miami City Ballet (2000-2006) and NYCB (guest appearances 2006-2008 and full-time for the past eight years), she was once a Principal Dancer herself at São Paulo's Teatro Municipal. On the evidence of this Nutcracker performance, that background makes her particularly appreciative of and alert to the practical needs of the dancers on stage. All in all, she makes a fine job of leading the orchestra in this performance and certainly deserves more than the printed anonymity to which the disc's unhelpful packaging condemns her.

A brief extra feature Behind the stage gives us a few words from the remarkably self-assured and articulate lead children Fiona Brennan and Colby Clark - both, at only 10 years old, already veteran performers, while sugar plum fairy Megan Fairchild reminisces about earlier roles she took in the Balanchine Nutcracker. Moving behind the scenes, technical director Perry Silvey explains how the snowfall scene is created (it's 50 lbs of white paper confetti, recycled for each performance), how the enormous Christmas tree is made to grow magically to its full height and how eight small children are concealed under Mother Ginger's capacious skirt. Mother G. herself, as performed by Andrew Scordato, talks briefly about his role and we see how the inside of his skirt is covered with marks of the children's kisses - a good luck gesture that's not only traditional but positively necessary as it seems there's a real risk of being trodden on by the concealed stilts on which Andrew walks. Finally, the children's ballet teacher Gabrielle Whittle describes how she over-prepares her charges to give them the confidence necessary to achieve "perfection... absolutely perfection": no child, she tells us, has ever failed to go on because of stage fright during her 28 years in the role.

As you will have gathered by now, despite the odd quibble I was mightily impressed with this NYCB version of Nutcracker. Of course, putting aside its unique Balanchine pedigree - which its marketing team clearly doesn’t want us to do - it faces strong competition on Blu-ray. It's worth noting, for example, that there's another recent and very fine American production from San Francisco ballet (Opus Arte OA BD7044D) that's well worth consideration. Perhaps, however, the quite remarkable world events of the year 2016 - regardless of whether you’re celebrating them or in desperate need of some cheering up - offer sufficient justification to treat yourself not just to one of those attractive performances but to both.

Rob Maynard



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