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Cracking the Nutcrackers: Balanchine's vs. Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker

by Lewis J Whittington
December 20, 2016
Philadelphia, PA
Russian artistic expatriate George Balanchine choreographed The Nutcracker for New York City Ballet in 1954. Balanchine danced several roles in Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s original 1892 version of the ballet when he was at the Mariinsky Theater. He streamlined his version of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story with a mix of neoclassical balletics and pantomime dance for American audiences. Nowadays, The Balanchine Trust only permits certain companies to dance the late choreographer's The Nutcracker but there are plenty of other ballet interpretations of Hoffmann's tale in circulation, some sticking closer than others to the ballet’s Russian origins.

When touring entity The Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker swung into Philadelphia for two nights at the Annenberg Center, just nights after the Pennsylvania Ballet’s opened their run of Balanchine's The Nutcracker, at the Academy of Music, I thought it would be interesting to compare the two choreographic templates, lineage, and impact on contemporary audiences.

Pennsylvania Ballet - George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker
Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Dec 9-31


Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Angel Corella continues to sharpen the company’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. With the Balanchine trust keeping a tight rein on the few companies that are licensed to perform Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, PAB’s attention to the smallest details make all of the difference.

Act I of the ballet can drag on if not fueled with enough performance energy. Child dancers Claire Smith and Rowan Duffy as siblings Marie and Fritz had plenty of performance energy with both young dancers having natural stage presence and were strong dancer-actors, a key element in focusing the opening scenes. Their energy extended to all the children in the Christmas holiday party scene, which can often look like seasonal pageantry.

Corella made sure that both the children and adult dancers were defining characters in their pedestrian and gestural movement.

PA Ballet’s new dance master Charles Askgard portrayed Herr Drosselmeier and was a study of detailed pantomime dance. Even Balanchine’s lumbering mouse battle scene moved swiftly along.

The Act I solos commenced when Drosselmeyer animated the harlequin dolls in their cute pointe patterns, but Balanchine saved the fireworks for the toy soldier solo, a precision dance, with precision flat-footed jumps and limbs moving in sharp opposite angles- In this performance Peter Weil danced it superbly.

After the faux mouse battle, Marie and the Nutcracker Prince are transported to a snowy forest where Snowflakes perform vintage Balanchine choreography full of geometric configurations and requiring tight esprit de corps. At this performance the corps’ ensemble had the pulse of the choreography, but veered off with some blurry pacing and scrambled transitions.

Act two opened with Amy Aldridge as the Sugar Plum Fairy amongst a group of little angels gliding over the floor. Aldridge has danced this role many times but this performance can be counted among her most radiant.

In the Act II divertissement Lillian DiPiazza smoldered as Coffee in the Arabian Dance and Jermel Johnson sliced through the air with saber leg splits for Tea. Alexander Peters and his battalion of Candy Canes got through those hoops with jaunty flair. And making the most of their flash tarantella in the Spanish Dance were newcomers Sterling Baca and Nayara Lopes.

But it was Dayesi Torriente dancing the lead Shepherdess in Marzipan that stood out most. This is deceptively simple looking mid-tempo choreography but is actually very tricky and easily scuttled. Balanchine’s counterpoint patterning can loose technical clarity and merely look pretty. In this performance however, Torriente commanded with thrilling artistry and her Shepherdesses - Adrianna de Svastich, Jacqueline Callahan, Yuka Iseda and Ana Calderan, were completely in sync.

In the Waltz of the Flowers, the corp de ballet looked sharper than in the "Snow" scene. Principal Mayara Pineiro set the highest mark with her fiery lead solo as Dewdrop. She hung in the air en pointe in arabesque and her transition steps to diamond centered turns, airy jetes and luminous pointe work were flawless.

The Grand Pas finale danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier is all Balanchine fireworks and tests the mettle of even the most technically proficient dancers. Aldridge was up to the task, not missing a moment to thrill with her solid technical prowess from every angle. She and principal dancer Ian Hussey as her Cavalier had palpable chemistry throughout, highlighted by their consistent fluency in Balanchine's difficult lift sequences. Hussey’s solos were highlighted by solid turns and tours en l’air.

In interpreting Tchaikovsky's iconic score for the ballet, it can’t be understated how vibrant conductor Beatrice Jona Affron’s tempos, detailing, and orchestral thrust were.
In Act I, among the outstanding soloists were Luigi Mazzocchi’s violin solo and harpist Mindy Cutcher whose gorgeous strings ushered in the "Snow" scenes first snowflakes.

Moscow Ballet - Great Russian Nutcracker
Annenberg Center, Philadelphia, PA
Dec. 12-13


The Moscow Ballet version of the Nutcracker is a more classic Russian version. It is a choreographic update by its directors after Imperial Ballet period versions by Russian choreographic masters Agrippina Vaganova, Petipa and Ivanov.

At the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker, you pick up right away that the story is much different. Uncle Drosselmeyer, performed wonderfully by danseur Maksim Bernadskyl is a Christmas Eve magician who conjures the young girl Masha’s Nutcracker dream and escorts us through the whole ballet.

Like the Balanchine Nutcracker Drosselmeyer, in the Ballet's first act party scene, brings mechanical dolls to entertain the party guests. Dancer Anastasiya Terada in a multicolored ribbon tutu was hypnotic in her mechanical moves as the "Kissy Doll" and Konstantin Vinovoy as the Harlequin Doll (the prototype for Balanchine’s Soldier) was equally spellbinding. Not transcribed by Balanchine were the Moor Dolls danced by Elena Petrichenko and Sergey Chumakov.

Where Balanchine leans heavily on just pantomime and gestural acting to carry Act I, here there is much more dancing including a waltz for the adults, and an officer saber dance.

The Nutcracker Doll & Prince was danced by Mykhailo Syniavskyl throughout (Balanchine turned it into a mostly pantomime role for a young male dancer).

Moscow Ballet’s mice battle was a much more interesting scene, than Balanchine’s limp and comedic version. Here Sergyl Merzlyakov was not a fat cartoon rat, but a scary Rat King in red and black dyed tights and a stylishly sinister headpiece. The fight choreography had Merzlyakov slicing through the air and in thrilling sword dances with Nutcracker Prince.

Petrichenko and Chumakov returned as the virtuoso "Dove of Peace" to open Act 2. The pair, each with a majestic wing, cleaved together in a series of lifts that kept moving into various symbolic and sculpted positions. Later, the couple appeared in an even more dramatic tableau in the Arabian Dance (a lengthier transcription of the Arabian music from Tchaikovsky’s score). Balanchine made this a solo dance and one of the highlights of his version for a smoldering solo for a principal ballerina. This has an equally entrancing quality and these two make the most of it.

Balanchine was skimpy on his version of the Spanish dance even though he has four couples animated in a stylized tarantella, with fancier footwork for the lead pair. Moscow Ballet’s Spanish dance duet of Boris Yastrub and Olga Aru was more interesting. This couple had wonderful presence and flair, though their technique flagged.

Moscow Ballet’s "Chinese Variation" was much more developed than Balanchine’s flash dance version with glittering repeated phrases. It was much more of a character dance, however un-pc with "Orientalism." In it, dancer Juliya Verian was a bit overshadowed by Merziyakov who once again stole the show with his technically dazzling double tempo grand pirouettes and razor sharp aerial splits.

The reverse was true in the "Snow" scene at the end of Act I. Moscow Ballet’s Snowflakes were exemplar of Russian ballet decorousness, whereas Balanchine’s choreography turned the heat way up.

Moscow Ballet’s "Russian Variation" was an expanded Czardas dance with Anton Romashkevych and Anna Bogatyr, in traditional Ukrainian dress, exuberant in high stepping patterns. Romashkevych moved through robust barrel rolls and Cossack plies, around Bogatyr, who was twirling like a top. Balanchine turned this into the Candy Canes hoop dance, which is just as effective as a scene, but doesn’t have this folkloric flavor.

Syniavskyi and Veronika Hordina had great chemistry and refinement in the central pas deux that defined their characters of the Nutcracker Prince and Masha and unfolded in dramatic finales for both acts.

Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker has a lot to offer in contrast to Balanchine’s distillation of Russian aesthetics. Even with techniques among this large cast erratic, particularly in the corp de ballet scenes, it should be noted that dance schools and companies in Russia have gone through drastic reductions of state sponsorship over the past 20 years which may account for the corps inconsistencies.
Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker.'

Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker."

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev


Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker.'

Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker."

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev


Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker.'

Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker."

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev


Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker.'

Pennsylvania Ballet in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker."

Photo © & courtesy of Alexander Iziliaev


Moscow Ballet in the 'Great Russian Nutcracker.'

Moscow Ballet in the "Great Russian Nutcracker."

Photo © & courtesy of Moscow Ballet


Moscow Ballet in the 'Great Russian Nutcracker.'

Moscow Ballet in the "Great Russian Nutcracker."

Photo © & courtesy of Moscow Ballet


Moscow Ballet in the 'Great Russian Nutcracker.'

Moscow Ballet in the "Great Russian Nutcracker."

Photo © & courtesy of Moscow Ballet

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