Ballet Review: The Bolshoi Nutcracker – Part II

Dear Readers:

Today I conclude my review of the Bolshoi Ballet production of “The Nutcracker”, which I was able to see in an IMAX movie theater a couple of days ago, thanks to this Pathe Live technology which brings classical culture to the masses at a reasonable price.  Like the website says, “Over 1,000 cinemas in 50 cities around the world, including in Russia, the UK and the U.S., will participate in the screenings.”   According to this website, the 2016-2017 season included/includes 7 performances, of which 4 are broadcast live via satellite from Moscow, and the other three are pre-recorded.

The Bolshoi Theater in Moscow

And even if you missed the Nutcracker, there is still time to see 4 more performances in the 2016-2017 season:

  • The Sleeping Beauty – January 22
  • Swan Lake – February 5
  • A Contemporary Evening – March 19
  • A Hero Of Our Time – April 9

My only criticism of the format  is that the hostess who introduces each segment and interviews the cast backstage (and sorry, I don’t remember, and can’t find her name online) can be distracting.  She chatters away in 3 languages (Russian, English and French), pausing to translate herself.  Granted, she is very talented, and is a nice looking lady, but hearing the same voice constantly switching context is distracting and grates on the nerves.  I would recommend that they hire two hostesses, or perhaps a host and hostess combo, one for each of the main languages (English and French, apparently, for international distribution), the two could work together, translate each other, and it would sound more harmonious.  Just my opinion, for what it’s worth.

I recommend this format.

Anyhow, the “Nutcracker” which I watched was actually pre-recorded from an earlier date, not live.  Which explains why the cast was somewhat different from what is listed on the Bolshoi site.  And no programs were handed out at the cinema, unfortunately, so I don’t remember many of the names of the dancers (which scrolled rapidly down the screen at the end), other than the soloists.  The Bolshoi ballet corps has a very deep bench, as they say in the sports world.  This page gives just a partial list of all the possible dancers who can play a given role on a given night.  For example, I see Anna Nikulina’s name, I know that she is the Principal who danced Marie in the show that I saw; but I don’t see the name of her Prince, Denis Rodkin, on the list.  And I know that he was there too!  This handsome beast has portrayed every major ballet hero from Spartacus to Prince Kurbsky, and he definitely has the right looks for a Prince Charming.  During the intermission, Rodkin was interviewed by Multilingual Chatterbox.  He seemed like a very nice guy.  Speaking only in Russian himself, he talked about the rigors of ballet training (“It’s terrifically hard!”), and about his impressions of his Prince role in The Nutcracker.  Denis remarked that he is inspired by Tchaikovsky’s music; and that, paradoxically, there is something intrinsically tragic in that moment when the hideous Nutcracker toy transforms into a Prince.

Tchaikovsky’s Legacy

As I mentioned yesterday, Tchaikovsky composed the Nutcracker music during the very last year of his life, in 1892.  Just a year later, at the early age of 53 , he died of cholera.  On the whole, he had a very good life.  If there was any tragedy, it was his unrequited quest for a perfect love.  A quest which he sublimated into his gorgeous music, with which he enriched the culture of all humanity.

Denis Rodkin as the Prince in Swan Lake

Tchaikovsky was commissioned by the Director of the Imperial Theater to write a double-bill of a ballet and a short one-act opera.  The opera turned out to be Iolanta and the ballet was The Nutcracker.  Since the ballet was not really a success when it premiered, Tchaikovsky would probably be surprised, were he alive today, to learn that, in North America alone, “Major American ballet companies generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker.”

Those North American ballet companies most likely perform the version of the ballet as choreographed by Marius Petipa, with whom Tchaikovsky collaborated for several of his ballet productions.  As far as I understand the process, the composer writes the music; and the choreographer conceives the dance steps which match to the music most faithfully, while also adding his own content and flair.

The Mouse King struts his stuff

Petipa greatly simplified the source story from E.T.A. Hoffmann, cutting out the entire backstory of Princess Pirlipat and her dispute with the Mice.  The reason is obvious:  Even a full-length ballet requires as simple a story as possible.  The characters don’t sing or talk, their only instrument to tell the story is dance and mime.  Hence, a story must be simplified to its basic essence.  Or in this case, transformed to be more palatable.  All that business with the conniving rodents and Drosselmeyer’s nephew obtaining a (literally) child bride — that’s all out the window.  Well, except for the fight scene between the mice and the toy soldiers, of course.  Which is one of the main attractions to modern audiences, although apparently the original audience in St. Petersburg, Russia was not thrilled with this battle scene.

In the glamorous Tchaikovsky-Petipa version of the story, the Nutcracker is not Drosselmeyer or his nephew:  He is a handsome Prince in disguise.  He takes the girl away to a wondrous land inside the Christmas tree, where candies and toys put on a show for her, before her final apotheosis as Queen of this magical realm.  And, by the way, in many productions, the girl is named “Clara” not Marie.  In the Hoffmann story, Clara is actually Marie’s favorite doll, perhaps destined to marry the Nutcracker.  (It’s complicated.)

A New Choreography

The innovation in the curent Bolshoi production was introduced by iconic Soviet and Russian choreographer Yury Grigorovich.   This is not the Petipa version any more:  Grigorovich completely overhauled the choreography.  Normally I don’t approve of innovations, but in this case it really worked.  Like Chatterbox explained, Grigorovich literally choreographed every single note of the Tchaikovsky score, to correspond to a step.  The synchronicity of steps and music is well-nigh perfect.  And, as everybody knows, one of the metrics of a successful dance, is that it match the music as completely as possible.

The French Dolls parade their pet.

Grigorovich also made the story more true to its source material, by having Marie’s Dolls dominate Act II.  This is their Realm, after all.  And they set out, with a series of divertissements, to entertain and amuse their new rulers.  Adding some elements of modern dance (such as flexed feet positions, etc.), Grigorovich paired Marie’s dolls into 5 couples:   Spanish dolls, Indian dolls, Chinese dolls, Russian dolls, and French dolls.  The Indian dolls performed a modern-dance type routine involving unusual lifts and contortions suggestive of Indian sculptures.  These dancers were good, but they forgot to smile, and you could see the effort of concentration on their faces, as they performed these difficult balance moves.  Dancers are supposed to always smile and try to make it look easy!


Egor Sharkov as the Chinese doll

The French dolls were noticeable for dancing with a prop (always a difficult endeavor), namely a toy lamb or goat, or what-the-heck that thing was.  My personal favorite divertissement:  The Chinese dolls.  These dancers showed an amazing athleticism, especially the male dancer, Egor Sharkov.  Jaws dropped when Egor effortlessly knocked off several triple jumps in a row — from a standing position!  Keep your eye on this guy — he is a real jumper!

But of course the sublime ending to the ballet is the sequence of pas de deuxs of Marie and her Nutcracker Prince, as they express their eternal love in a series of leaps, pirouettes and jaw-dropping overhead lifts!  And may they live happily ever after in the Realm of Sugarplums and Dancing Dolls!


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2 Responses to Ballet Review: The Bolshoi Nutcracker – Part II

  1. Lyttenburgh says:

    It’s surprising how few people actually read the original story – most of them know about the Nutcracker mostly from the ballet (and, again – there is no certainty that they even saw it) or from some X-mas special episode of this or that kids’ show or the cartoon, which rips off generously the storyline.

    When I was a little kid, my grandfather used to read me “The Nutcracker”. In German. We had really old book (early XX c. printing, I believe) with absolutely gorgeous engraving-style illustrations – in the language of original. Granpa would read some passage aloud in German, and then translate it into Russian (like many people who lived through the War he did learn the language). The battle between the toy soldiers and the mice was the most EPIC thing ever for me (what did you expect from a kid in 90s who never watched the Star Wars?). But the part about “Journey into the Magic land” was kinda boring, punctuated by sheer horror from time to time. If you remember, they are visiting various parts of now transfigured Prince, and he acts as a tour guide to lil’ Marie. So, at one moment they are passing a land where there are, literally, milk and honey rivers and riverbanks. As the consequence all the people there suffer from constant tooth pain and the general bad shape of their dental cavities.

    I was scared alright by this picture. To this day I don’t like sweet stuff. And honey.

    But, perhaps, most people in the former SU at least know the Shelkunchik thanks to this amazing animated cartoon:

    Note the key difference – Marie here is a servant-girl, and not the daughter of the well-off burghers who can afford to shower their kinder with all sort of expensive toys. I always like how the soviet animation managed to include very subtle, bat-an-eye-and-you-will-miss-it propaganda (or, as they say these day – “social message”) in the cartoons. Here we have a class change for Marie – and the sheer number of “fairy tales” with proletarian protagonists made into animated films makes it very noticeable and distinct from, say, the Disney.


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