LET IT SNOW: Larissa Ponomarenko and James Whiteside were the highlight of last Saturday afternoon’s performance.
When E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote Nutcracker and Mouse King back in 1816, he can hardly have imagined the impact it would have on ballet as we know it. Neither, in 1892, can Peter Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa have anticipated that their adaptation of Hoffmann's novella would go on to be seen, every year, by more people than any other ballet. Boston Ballet's version, now in its 43rd year (at the Opera House through December 31), is in turn seen by more people than any other Nutcracker in the world, and it's provided the financial foundation for the company's growth. So, in a town that loves its holiday traditions (the Marathon, Independence Day on the Esplanade, Holiday Pops, the Handel and Haydn Society's Messiah), perhaps one should not expect this one to be more than a well-presented, well-danced entertainment — which it is.
It's more, actually. As far back as I can remember (about 25 years in this instance), Boston Ballet's Nutcracker has picked up on many of the jeux d'esprit from Hoffmann's sophisticated fairy tale. The way Clara's godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, emerges from the Silberhauses' owl clock stamps him as an enemy of the mice, but it also suggests that he's owl-wise in matters of time and growing up — even though he can't get his own watch to work. (In a witty touch here, he gives the "on the fritz" instrument to Fritz as he leaves the Christmas party.) With his eyepatch, Drosselmeier conjures the Norse god Odin (and Wagner's Wotan). And with his yellow-and-green trouser suit and curved scimitar, Boston Ballet's Mouse King evokes the Turkish Knight of England's St. George and the Dragon mummers' play. (Look closely, moreover, and you'll see that he's wearing a cat's-head trophy belt.)
No, this Nutcracker was never designed as an envelope-pushing exploration on the order of, say, Maurice Béjart's, or Mark Morris's The Hard Nut. And it will likely never recapture its glory days at the Wang Theatre, where the tree had room to rise 40 feet high (as opposed to 30 at the Opera House) and the first-act mise-en-scène included an opening sequence in which Clara and Fritz tried to peek into the drawing room and the Delivery Boy was sweet on the Parlor Maid. Not everything was better back then: the trick whereby Drosselmeier covers Fritz with a tablecloth and causes him to levitate before snatching the cloth away to reveal no one underneath it is the best bit of magic he's ever performed in Boston. And in artistic director Mikko Nissinen's current choreography, the Snow Queen and King start to dance as soon as the Nutcracker is transformed into the Cavalier, getting the benefit of some of the most erotic music Tchaikovsky ever wrote.
In the performance I saw last Saturday afternoon, Larissa Ponomarenko and James Whiteside took full advantage, Ponomarenko heartstopping, as always, in her line and flow and Whiteside high and powerful. The other highlight was 18-year-old Whitney Jensen's Columbine, unnervingly quick in her mechanical movements. Newly promoted principal Lia Cirio and newly arrived (from Georgia) principal Lasha Khozashvili made for a pleasing but not exceptional Sugar Plum and Cavalier. Cirio's Sugar Plum has grown over last year's, but she still looks a tad Disney and digital next to the analog shadings of Ponomarenko or Kathleen Breen Combes (who did Dew Drop).