Ballet Review: The Bolshoi Nutcracker – Part I

Dear Readers:

In my crusade to introduce more culture into the Russophile blogosphere, I hereby review a marvelous ballet which I, along with a minion, viewed yesterday.  None other than the ballet to end all ballets.  The mother lode:  Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” from the stage of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow.

And, no, I didn’t see it in Moscow, unfortunately.  Even if I lived in Moscow, I probably would not have been able to get a ticket.  I hear they are very hard to come by.

Marie and her Prince apotheosized

But fortunately for us rubes out there in the world, there is a marvelous technology, which I have written about before, in my opera reviews.  The same technology which allows the Metropolitan Opera to beam its shows (via High Definition picture and sound) live into movie theaters across the world — and I am very happy to see that the Bolshoi Theater has gotten onboard with this.  Beam the Ballets!  The system is called “Pathe Live”, here is their website,  check it out and see if they have any shows available in your area.  The tickets are very cheap too, not much more than you would pay for an ordinary movie.  Take your kids too — this is good stuff!

Thanks to these Pathe folks, my minion and I were able to see this great Nutcracker in an ordinary American movie theater (set up for IMAX) while chomping on popcorn and sugar plums.  I intend to watch and review more of these performances as we go along, and therefore I added a new category to my blog called “Ballet”.

Who Or What Is The Nutcracker?

Now, first things first.  Who is this Nutcracker fellow, and where did he come from?  I think most Americans have heard of the Nutcracker, it may be the only ballet that they can name, or have ever seen.  It is traditionally performed around Christmas time in every American city, village, and hamlet.  It is thought of as a children’s ballet, and the little kiddies in dance school all want to appear in their local community production.  Even if it’s just a bit part sitting in the back, under Herr Stahlbaum’s Christmas tree.

Americans know that a Nutcracker is a children’s toy with a functional purpose:  His jaws crack open nuts.  The toy is sold in stores and is generally dressed like a Russian hussar.  In Russian, the word for “Nutcracker”, both the object and the name of the ballet,  is Щелкунчик (pronounced something like “shel-KUN-chik”)from the verb щёлкнуть (“to crack”).  The story of the Nutcracker ballet is that of a 7-year-old girl who is given this toy as a Christmas present.  Actually, it’s not really given to her specifically.  It’s a functional gift for the entire family, but she takes to it and claims as her own.  You know how it is with kids — you toss them a bunch of expensive presents, and you’re not really sure why they take to a particular toy or gift and ignore the others.  In this case, the child forms a mysterious bond with this household device.  It’s almost like she senses that, underneath his wooden exterior, there is a handsome young man who wants to whisk her away to a magical life where she will rule over all her dolls….  Sounds like a wholesome children’s story, no?

A Tale of Hoffmann

The original tale of the little girl and her beloved household appliance came from the twisted pen of German fantasy writer Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, more commonly known as E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Hoffmann (lived 1776-1822) was sort of the Stephen King of his era.  He wrote dark and spooky stories, which I would most definitely not read to small children.  Hoffmann was hugely popular during the so-called “Romantic era” of European literature.  From his fertile imagination came a series of tales of the supernatural which inspired at least two major ballets of the classical repertoire (“The Nutcracker” and Coppélia) and a famous opera by Jacques Offenbach, called Les contes d’Hoffmann (“The Tales of Hoffmann”).

Coppélia, the mechanical doll who looks like a girl.

In his opera about the (fictionalized) life of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Offenbach patched together bits and pieces of Hoffmann’s stories.  He used some of the “Coppélia” material for Olympia, the dancing doll.  Other spooky Hoffmann-esque themes include the stealing of a man’s reflection in the mirror, and a phantom-of-the-opera type story of a diva who is forced to sing until she dies.  All of these tales feature a man (the same man every time, just goes under a different name:  Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr. Miracle and Dapertutto) who is the devil incarnate, and whose major purpose in life is to thwart the poet Hoffmann’s quest for a woman’s love.

American Joffrey Ballet: Children audition for the annual Nutcracker. The ratio of 7 girls to one boy is typical for this sport.

I am just making the point that the Hoffmann material is not really for children.  Well, of course, children do love spooky and even gory stories, that’s true.  But this is dark material of fantasy and sexual repression; and lives a quite a distance from the wholesome children’s “Nutcracker” ballet performances which deck the hall of every American theater around Christmastime.  And where proud parents sit in the audience cheering on their sweet untalented children prancing around on the stage.

The Curse Of The Rodents

In 1816, E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote a short story called Nussknacker und Mausekönig (“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”).  Seven-year-old Marie Stahlbaum, from a respectable bourgeois family, is the heroine of the story.  She is a sweet little kid with basic maternal instincts — she cares for her dolls and she is upset when the Nutcracker toy is damaged by her brother.  Inside her little brain she enjoys a rich fantasy life, which involves marrying a handsome prince, eating sugar plums all day long, and ruling over the Kingdom of the Dolls.  Her main relationship is not so much with her parents (who don’t seem to care all that much about her, or want to listen to her tall tales), nor her brother Fritz, as with her sinister Godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer.  It goes without saying that Drosselmeyer has supernatural abilities, and is possibly the Devil himself.  At the family’s annual Christmas party, Drosselmeyer puts on a puppet show for the children, featuring clockwork puppets Harlequin, Columbine, a he-devil, and a she-devil.  Drosselmeyer is a professional clockmaker and a master of clockwork devices:  Like several of Hoffmann’s heroes, he can craft mechanical dolls which dance and act human.  It is never explained exactly why such a creepy man is welcome in the home of the Stahlbaums, or how he became Marie’s godfather!   The most disturbing thing about this story is that the little girl keeps sustaining unexplained injuries — she cuts her arm on a glass cabinet, she faints quite often, etc.  She can explain the injuries away, as side effects of her nighttime adventures, but her parents don’t believe her.   And it is Drosselmeyer, not her parents, who sits at her bedside every night, nursing her back to health. 

Sinister Drosselmeyer is obviously in league with the Dark Forces.

Drosselmeyer’s intentions toward Marie seem benign, but are they really?  Is his ultimate goal to  whisk her away to a kingdom of eternal darkness?

While Marie is recuperating from her injuries, Drosselmeyer tells her the story of Princess Pirlipat and the Mouse family.  This fairy tale follows several formulaic conventions, including the requirement that the heroine not be allowed to question or criticize her beloved.  This is a variant on the “Princess and Frog” theme:  By swearing her love for the hideous Nutcracker with his gaping unhinged jaw, and not rejecting him because of his ugliness, Marie breaks the curse that was placed on him by the Mouse Queen.  When the curse is broken, the Nutcracker transforms into — well, not exactly a Prince, just Drosselmeyer’s nephew, but still human and reasonably good looking.  And a year later, Drosselmeyer Jr. whisks his child bride off to be crowned Queen of the Dolls.  Where she can rule in peace and quiet and never have to see her parents or brother again.

Bolshoi ballerina Anna Nikulina

Tchaikovsky took this dubious story and turned it into the magical dreamlike fluff that we know today.  Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas, without the Stahlbaum Tannenbaum growing to monstrous size — or is it Marie shrinking down to the size of a mouse?  The Bolshoi performance which I saw, with libretto and a new choreography by Russian icon Yury Grigorovich, manages to remain remarkably true to the original Hoffmann material, while not being dark or creepy at all.  It is simply impossible to feel dark and creepy when listening to Tchaikovsky’s sublime music.

Ironically, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky himself was approaching the end of his life when he wrote the music for this ballet masterpiece.  As he worked, his mood was darkened by feelings of tragedy and unrequited longing.

[to be continued]

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