Who Gave the Nutcracker the Bottle of Alice?

Several weeks have passed since I saw the Casse-Noisette interpreted by Opéra-Théâtre de Metz-Métropole, performed at Kinneksbond, Mamer. I did not have the chance to watch it again before writing this review, so I only hope that my memory will not lead me astray and I won’t be unfair in my observations – though, in fact, I feel that I have a more positive impression about the piece now than right after seeing it.

Probably I’m not alone with the feeling that watching any version of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet, The Nutcracker available at the place and time I find myself in the period before Christmas in any year, is indispensable for creating my Christmas mood. Back in Budapest, I used to watch the presentation of the Hungarian National Ballet at the Hungarian State Opera each year – this performance was based on the libretto of Vasily Vaynonen who trained the ballet company himself with his wife, Klavdiya Armashevskaya to prepare them for the premiere in February 1950.[i] When abroad, I try to catch a broadcast of the performance of the Bolshoi Ballet (such as Yuri Grigorovich’s choreography taking ideas from the original libretto written by Marius Petipa for the premiere of the ballet in 1892) or watch any other interpretation. Sometimes, I only wish to experience the magic put on stage in different shapes, but most of the time, I cannot avoid comparing my impressions of the various choreographies.

So, I was very much excited when a friend invited me to watch the Nutcracker-version of the ballet company of the Opéra-Théâtre de Metz-Métropole.[ii] All the more so because I remembered how much I liked their interpretation of Sergey Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet a few years ago. The two elements that impressed me the most at that time were the tasteful way the choreographer applied a modern approach to staging the ballet, and the authenticity of the main dancers in expressing their feelings. The performance showed the characters as very humane, easy to identify with even for a modern audience.

The official trailer of The Nutcracker by the Opéra-Théâtre Metz Métropole

In this respect, I wasn’t disappointed in the case of the Casse-Noisette either. The choreographer, Laurence Bolsigner-May, was apparently indulging in the clever ways of creating a witty tableau of the modern society: youngsters addicted to their mobile phone; the power of money in influencing attraction; young and old flirting with each other regardless of social status.

To avoid misunderstanding, we have to mention, that it is not our modern society as such here that has to be connected with the notion of questionable ethics: even the original libretto by Petipa (that the choreography claims to rely on) included a Danse des incroyables et merveilleuses in the first act, mocking a niche of society born after the French revolution, famous for their exaggerations in luxurious style and often called immoral for their startling ways of dressing.[iii]

As I see it, it’s rather a kind of nice feedback to Petipa’s libretto and a topos-like element of reflecting on modernity in general, not taken too seriously. If you think of it, every generation finds the new ones more immoral and ‘incredible’ than themselves – while looking back from any later point of time, all the once ‘new’ generations managed to contribute to the development of the world in many positive ways.

Bolsigner-May introduced modern elements with great creativity and in a very entertaining way: although they definitely surprise the viewers if those had been used to a more traditional interpretation, they unquestionably add value to the presentation, bringing it very close to the audience of today. They make us reflect on ourselves and the underlying forces in our society with a great sense of humour, drawing witty character and situational sketches – couldn’t have been done better, if you ask me.

On the other hand, I think that what could have been, or even should have been done better in order not to ruin a great first impression, concerns the virtuosity of the dancers (or perhaps the choreography's ability to give them opportunity for showing it off) and the creativity in handling space on the given stage in order to counterbalance its smallness.

The choreography painfully lacked virtuosity in several crucial scenes, especially the one where Drosselmeyer, the clock- and toymaker uncle of Clara (called Maria in Vasily Vaynonen’s libretto) gives his presents, the mechanical dolls, to the children in the first act; and in the adagio of the pas-de-deux in the third act.

The dance of the ‘Blackamoore’, as called by Vaynonen, is one of the highlights of his choreography, making it possible for the dancer to exhibit his technical skills in an awe-inspiring way. Have a look at it from 2:34 of the following video 🎬 , a compilation showcasing some of the most characteristic moments of the choreography of Hungarian Opera House; or from 18:14 of the recording 🎬 of The Nutcracker played at the Mariinsky Theatre (where it originally premiered in 1892), also relying on Vaynonen’s choreography.

Vaynonen, while adopting several changes introduced to Marius Petipa’s and Lev Ivanov’s original choreography by Alexander Gorsky, another Russian choreographer, emphatically reached back to Tchaikovsky’s music for inspiration – in the videos linked above, you can observe how nicely the Blackamoore’s dance unfolds to follow the music as it gets more and more intense. Bolsigner-May’s concept of the dance lacked energy against such predecessors, especially that the impressive final set of spins in which Vaynonen’s version culminates was very much reduced.

Another disappointingly weak part of Bolsigner-May’s choreography for me was the adagio, danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, Prince Coqueluche according to Petipa’s libretto but taken over by the princess-turned Maria and the prince-turned Nutcracker in Vaynonen's choreography. Their pas-de-deux in the latter is a crescendoing show of technique, skills and emotions exhibited by the dancers, leaving the audience with a feeling of catharsis. I remember how I concluded once, that this pas-de-deux depicts an ideal relationship in a quite modern sense: the adagio shows how harmoniously the two dancers, man and woman can work together. The two following solo variations highlight the exceptional skills of the main female and male dancer, both of whom have merits of their own. Finally, the coda reunites the two characters to lift them to an even higher level of achievement, to show what two exceptional people can create when supporting each other in a mutually respectful co-operation giving space to unfold their creativity but with the common goal of building something great together.

The adagio in Bolsigner-May’s choreography seemed embarrassingly 'flat' in its technique, being totally out of tune with the grandiosity of Tchaikovsky's music. One could feel this even more painfully if s/he recalled that unique collaboration between the choreographer and the musician in the spirit of which the most famous ballets of Tchaikovsky (the Swan Lake (1876), the Sleeping Beauty (1889) and The Nutcracker (1892)) were born. One of the things in which Russian ballet excelled in the Romantic period was the organic way the music and the choreography of the ballets took shape. The authenticity of this kind of common creation by the musician and the choreographer is often praised and is also contrasted with the way Western-European ballets such as 'Giselle' and hundreds of others that are not even preserved in modern repertoires, were born, where the music was inorganically, even mechanically created to satisfy a certain pre-cut template for popularity and success on a Western stage.

The 'flatness' of this part was somewhat puzzling against the two solo variations that followed, where the dancers (especially Clément Malczuk in the role of Casse-Noisette/Prince in the show of 8 December) did show much better capacity and skills. This made me ask myself whether the lacking virtuosity is rather the consequence of the choreography than that of the preparedness of the dancers.

The coda also left a much better impression than the adagio, which ameliorated the situation. However, the adagio being much more iconic than the following three parts, the whole pas-de-deux left the more experienced viewer with the bitter feeling that the promise of the climax of this ballet has not been fulfilled.

Another problem was that the small size of the stage was not always counterbalanced in a way that would have made the viewers forget about the immense contrast between the dimensions of the stages for which Bolsigner-May’s and Petipa’s or Vaynonen’s versions had been created. What do I mean by this? Petipa and later Vaynonen both worked for the Mariinsky Theatre (called Kirov from 1935 to 1992), a building that had the biggest stage in 1859 when in was built.[iv] The Russian stages of the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi (‘Grand’) theatre (the venues of ballet performances of the Romantic era when The Nutcracker was born) are often contrasted by historians with the stage at which the Royal Danish Ballet used to perform in the same period. The difference between the size of these stages famously gave rise to two distinctive styles that still define 'Russian ballet' and 'Danish ballet' in our days. On the Danish side, movements demanding lots of space were limited by the lack of it, and they were expanding in a vertical as opposed to horizontal direction. The technique that developed excelled in high jumps and spins without changing place. Since the audience could see the dancers from relatively close, the movements of the upper body were understated, and the focus was placed instead on the virtuoso footwork and elaborate facial expression requiring not only exceptional dancing but also remarkable acting skills from ballet dancers. On the Russian side, on the other hand, dancers had all the space they wanted, but most of the huge audience could not see either their face or their legs from their distant seats. Consequently, longer jumps and spin sequences using the horizontal space developed, gestures became wide and were presented with an air that made every move an attraction – almost ‘ostentatious’ in comparison to the Danish style, as suggested by Nikolaj Hübbe, artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet in this video 🎬 :

Expressiveness and acting skills were not in focus, though one of the things that are said to had raised Russian ballet above the companies of all other nations at the time was that it did not compromise on these either. It's interesting to watch the 5-minute video 🎬 above, as well as this short video 🎬 from the Ballet Evolved series of the Royal Opera House to have a better insight into the differences between the Danish and the Russian style:

The big space in the Russian theatres also allowed the choreographers to place 30-40 dancers on the stage at the same time. And since most of the audience was seeing them from above, it made sense to design coordinated movements of the whole group breaking and merging again, forming diverse geometric forms – somehow returning to the roots of court dance in the Renaissance, when the movement of the dancers carefully planned by a person bearing the prestigious title of the dance master was supposed to imitate the movement of the spheres and the celestial objects.

There are two waltzes in The Nutcracker that are famous for traditionally being staged in this spirit: the Waltz of the Snowflakes before, and the Waltz of the Flowers at the end of the scenes at the court of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Land of Sweets. Have a look at the recording 🎬 from the Mariinsky at 44:32 and at 1:13:37 respectively to see what I mean.

In fact, even though I am a known waltz enthusiast, I think that the only thing that makes two waltzes of this length (both around 7 minutes!) bearable on stage is a similarly diverse, busy and spectacular choreography as in this video. Consequently, I quickly got bored by Bolsigner-May’s versions. They seemed to lack ‘volume’ and ‘direction’, and watching the dancers I could only agree with those people who ask: what is there to like about ballet, a bunch of dancers jumping around on stage for an endless time?

I was thinking whether it is the size of the stage or that of the ballet company that stole the life from these dances. But then I concluded that whatever the reply, it didn’t inevitably have to be like that. I remembered that during Romeo and Juliet performed by the same company on the same stage, I didn’t feel bored for a moment. What was the difference? I have quickly found an answer: probably the strength of the story and the intensity of emotions it provoked. It’s true: The Nutcracker’s plot is incredibly weak, Tchaikovsky himself didn’t like it. The characters are too simple, there is no cleverly built dramatic tension, therefore no real emotional reaction can be expected from the audience (except for occasional rushes of the sentimental mood that tends to overcome us before Christmas anyway from time to time). It’s greatly due to Tchaikovsky’s music that the ballet gained so much popularity: its premier was a doubted success, while the suit he compiled from excerpts of the score was immediately well received.

Most of the ballet is composed of divertissements: dancing parts that don’t move the action forward but are only designed to delight the senses. Such are all the dances at the court of the Sugar Plum Fairy (a part also called Grand Divertissement): The Chocolate (Spanish) Dance, The Coffee (Arabian) Dance, The Tea (Chinese) Dance, and so on. But these – while being much shorter in general than the two waltzes – also engage the senses on several levels: by their exotic nature expressed by the rhythm and melodies, the stylized folk-dance figures and the costumes imitating national wear.

Observe the characteristic costumes from 0:37 above 🎬 – the one designed for the Arabian Dance by Gusztáv Oláh for the 1950 premier of the Vaynonen-choreography is my favourite. The veil had an organic role in the dance and the sight used to be breathtaking.

In the case of the waltzes, however, the rhythm and the regular figures are more than familiar to the Western-European public, consequently, it’s only the costume that has a chance to engage it better, unless the choreography is exceptional. And the costumes alone – no matter how nicely designed – become boring for the 21st century audience if they are supposed to engage the viewer in their own.

But were the costumes alone in this ‘fight for maintaining attention’? In fact, no – at least not on the stage in Kinneksbond, Mamer that is equipped with a ceiling-to-floor canvas. A canvas on which you can project anything. I remember a play, Young Frankenstein staged there by Pirate Productions barely a month before The Nutcracker, that exploited the potential of the canvas in a wonderful way creating lots of space and a peculiar atmosphere. And how was it used here? As far as I remember, there were three different, more or less interesting decors projected on it, neither of which having a considerable effect with regard to visually increasing the space. While the background of the court scene was quite spectacular and it certainly made the stage view busier, it became boring after a while and even compressed the general view.

Regarding the two choreographies, they could also have been ‘saved’. One way of this might have been applying the same concept of creating formations and geometric group design as on bigger stages but on a smaller group of dancers - I could see attempts at this but they didn’t seem consequent enough. Another way would have been throwing away the whole traditional idea and replacing it with something strikingly modern and different, as it had been done in the first act and in some other parts of the Grand Divertissement by Bolsigner-May with lots of success.

Talking about the divertissements in the third act, the Chinese dance received a very memorable, contemporary edge and exchanging one of the other dances (my memory is failing me here) with a cabaret-like show performed by the same set of people who danced before as ‘incroyables and merveilleuses’ (i.e. the parents) was also a fantastic idea in my view.

Other changes in the characters were not so fortunate in my opinion. If I remember well, the role of the Snow Queen and that of the Sugar Plum Fairy were danced by the same ballerina – which might be understandable in the view of the constraints of small companies in staging a ballet with so many characters, but I found it very disappointing. The dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is again a flagship of the ballet: one expects magic itself to step on stage to the first notes of the familiar melody, but at least a completely new sight with someone completely new. Though, I acknowledge that this is a very subjective opinion.

The costumes, however, have received my unrestrained acknowledgement: they are full of fantasy, spectacular enough (sometimes even bizarre) to keep the mind of the 21st century viewer engaged. They are perfectly aligned with the youthful impetus and modern spirit of the choreography exhibited in the first act and the character dances of the Grand Divertissement. Great job by Brice Lourenço and Valerian Antoine.

Despite the great costumes and fantastic original parts of the choreography, and despite the unruinable greatness and richness of Tchaikovsky’s music, I left with the feeling that something was lost in this performance: the grandiosity of the original ballet. As if the Nutcracker had taken a sip from the (in)famous bottle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (the parallel of the two stories is not that strange, after all) and instead of growing to human size as in the story of the ballet, it had shrunk together with its whole world.

Obviously, this is only my subjective opinion and I don’t want to sound like a know-it-all, especially that ballet is not my specialty. But I really think that if someone decides to stage such an immensely popular ballet as The Nutcracker loaded with the legacy of choreographers who have written their name in all-caps in dance history, they should either not touch iconic parts of the choreography, or, if they decide so, they should replace them by equally impressive solutions. In this form, Bolsigner-May’s Nutcracker is limping like Andersen’s tin soldier: it could be brilliant if the choreographer had been consequent in replacing all parts of the formerly grand figure following the lead of his apparent genius in breathing new life into old themes by modernizing them in a witty way. But, although he realized this with great mastery through half of the libretto, he forgot to replace a leg that The Nutcracker lost in the battle for the revival of the ballet. In my view, the choreographer left crucial parts of the masterpiece weak and unimpressive instead of replacing them by aesthetically-conceptually equally sound elements that could have properly underpinned the grand structure.

[i] The performance was revived by László Seregi in 1994 and this was the version played through the years up to 2015 when a new choreography was prepared by Tamás Solymosi and Wayne Eagling.

[ii] https://opera.metzmetropole.fr/fr/la-saison/casse-noisette_-d.html#.XC4F3VXduiO

[iii] If you are interested in this topic, you might find a nice selection of authentic images of the style at www.lamesure.fr, and further descriptions of the phenomena at www.larousse.fr and www.fashionencyclopedia.com, among others.

[iv] The original seating capacity of the theatre was 1625. Source: Mariinsky Theater, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Mariinsky_Theater&oldid=1013800 (last visited 2 January 2019).

Further sources:

Kővágó Zsuzsa: Csajkovszkij: A Diótörő – három felvonásos mesebalett. Magyar Állami Operaház, Budapest.

Notes taken at the classes in Dance History held by Márk Fenyves in 2018.