Disclosure: Dance Dispatches received complimentary admission to write an open and honest review of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, performed by the New York City Ballet.
For many, watching The Nutcracker is an annual festive event – and many ballet companies repeatedly perform the same choreography for an entire month every year. The New York City Ballet is no exception. But whilst some productions grow stale, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® ballet at the Lincoln Center jubilantly celebrates the Yuletide season. With an extra dash of Christmas magic, it’s a spectacular show for children and the young at heart.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®
Although The Nutcracker ballet had fallen out of fashion, George Balanchine believed that “contemporary audiences would respond warmly to the charm of the story and the beauty of the score,” according to the program notes. His own rendition premiered in February 1954, and the New York City Ballet has performed this specific New York Nutcracker show every year since. Today, each performance consists of more than 150 New York City Ballet dancers and musicians; and 125 ballet students participate (in alternating casts). 2019 is exceptionally notable with a diverse cast of young leading dancers: Charlotte Nebres (the first black dancer cast as Marie), Sophia Thomopoulos (a dancer with Korean and Greek heritage, who also plays Marie), Tanner Quirk (a half-Chinese dancer, who dances as the Prince) and Kai Misra-Stone (a half-South Asian dancer, who also plays the Prince).
New York City Ballet: The Nutcracker Review
The audience joins the children, giddily watching the adults prepare for their holiday party. We feel their excitement when they burst into the room and delightedly jump at the foot of the twinkling Christmas tree, raising their arms skyward.
Oftentimes, the opening scene acts as ho-hum pedestrian prelude to the flashier songs in the show. But Balanchine’s version still feels more like a dance than a pantomime – as Marie (Sophie Thomopoulos) and the young girls twirl in their dresses and the boys militaristically march around the stage.
Touches of humor keep the spirit up – like when a boy tries to ditch his adult dance partner and when the toy soldier’s gunfire sends the boys toppling over backwards.
Even the ‘menacing’ mice are comical – galloping on stage with tubby tummies and bald tails swinging behind them. The boisterous gang are relatable as they pump their first to cheer on their multi-headed Mouse King (Gilbert Bolden III), and when they piteously carry their fallen leader off stage.
The dance-y snowflakes section segues nicely into the second act, as snow is softly sprinkled on stage from lofty heights. The synchronized female corps performs a flurry of moves as if in an enchanted snow globe – the swirling eddies falling thicker and faster to match the intensity of the movement and live music.
Young Marie and Herr Drosselmeyer’s nephew (Kai Misra-Stone) take a seat in front of the towering pastel set of sweet treats and lace, like a young lord and lady of a very posh version of Candy Crush.
Tiny angels in cone-shaped skirts hold small Christmas trees by their chests and trundle on stage, preceding a parade of delicacies around the world: Spanish hot chocolate, Arabian coffee and Chinese tea. The alluring Georgina Pazcoguin brings a sinuous quality to her ‘Arabian dance’ solo, while the tea dancers are given much simpler choreography. Still, the ‘Chinese dance’ finishes with Sebastian Villarini-Velez vaulting and rebounding into a handful of consecutive toe touches.
Pazcoguin helped to re-shape the Chinese Tea variation by removing elements of racial caricature from the costume and the choreography. Read about the Final Bow for Yellowface project in Pointe magazine.
Next, the pinstriped candy canes dash out – and all eyes follow the dancer with a hoop. He jumps up, suspended in a pike position for just long enough to slip the hoop over his body – twice. The trick enchants the audience almost as much as Mother Ginger and her nine-foot wide costume that weighs 85 pounds and hides her little troop of Polichinelles.
Like the snowflakes number, the Waltz of the Flowers is another beautifully choreographed piece, but this time Erica Pereira stands out as the focal point in her role as a spritely Dewdrop. But the Sugarplum Fairy (Megan Fairchild) and her Cavalier (Gonzalo Garcia) take the cake in this land of sweets, with dazzling solo and pas de deux choreography – a true feast with leaps, fouetté turns and a swan dive.
The show ends as the two young ones depart from the mystical world, waving at their friends from their flying sleigh. This Nutcracker doesn’t drag us back to Herr Drosselmeyer and co., and that’s perfectly OK. The audience has already been infused with the Christmas spirit.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®re-writes the story’s duller moments. With a cast of well-rehearsed children and zippy soloists, enhanced by immaculate production elements, this Nutcracker ballet in NYC sets a high bar.
How many performances of The Nutcracker have you seen? And which companies performed the Christmas classic? We’d love to hear about your Nutcracker experience in the comments below.