What to give for Christmas is a problem performing companies can solve by establishing their own holiday show. Unwrapped annually, tweaked and tidied, taken in here and poufed out there, it becomes a reliable way to celebrate. Sometimes it even grows into a tradition — famously The Nutcracker. Some of us cringe at the very word Nutcracker, but two things about that venerable institution struck me this year. First, there are in fact alternatives, and then, even the Real Thing comes in many flavors. I sampled three shows and a DVD to see what the dancing spirit of Christmas 2005 looked like.
Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker, the longest-running local edition of the ballet classic, moved from its home last year at the Colonial Theatre into the Opera House. I liked seeing the production at the moderate-sized Colonial. The Opera House doesn’t make you think you’re looking through the wrong end of a telescope as does the Ballet’s customary stage, the Wang Theatre, but it’s not exactly cozy, either. One reason for The Nutcracker's popularity is its track record as a moneymaking enterprise that can plug up the holes in a ballet company’s inherently leaky annual budget, and the Opera House does provide 2500 seats to be filled with paying customers.
Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker seems stretched between two conflicting goals. As a tradition it must remain the same, but marketing pressures demand novelty. The production spins off promotional activities and outreach events, and the ballet itself sprouts new features every year. By now the whole production has acquired so many bits and scraps that it looks cluttered, even unfocused. Fortunately, some of the old shtick has been dropped, like the tipsy grandparents, but the evening still seems more like a variety show than a ballet. The story takes a back seat to the anticipated arrival of the Teddy Bear, the goofy Mice, the campy Mother Ginger, the balloon, and of course the snowstorm.
Maybe the Nutcracker’s plot doesn’t matter and it’s all just an excuse for dancing and special effects. But there is a lesson there, about childhood’s fears and comforts and surprises, and the reassurance of a loving family that’s waiting for you when you wake up from your dreaming adventures. All of this gets anchored in the first scene, but you can hardly find it in Boston Ballet’s frenetic party goings-on.
Mikko Nissinen’s introductory street scene establishes a period and a place, but the realistic bustle and cheeriness of the characters is upstaged by one young man insistently doing ballet tricks to make the audience applaud. This year, donors and local personalities were invited to do walk-ons every night, and the audience was prompted to cheer them.
And who are the characters in the story? On the night I attended, the children, Clara and Fritz, were played by adult dancers. Misa Kuranaga was credible, but Michael Breeden looked at least 16, so who could believe his petulance over a doll? Viktor Plotnikov’s Drosselmeier raged and flounced through the entire ballet, so you wondered whether he imagined himself the children’s friend, their benevolent uncle, or a weird acquaintance who’d dropped in by accident. It’s not easy to tell who Fritz and Clara’s parents are either. It seems the company hasn’t devoted much attention to refining these characters because the story takes a back seat to the spectacle.