Saturday, 4 January 2014

Nutcracker Triumphant!

Flanagan's Law states (according to Helene Hanff) that in any situation there are three possibilities: the two you managed to think of, and the one that will actually happen.

James Kudelka's version of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker for the National Ballet of Canada is a perfect illustration of this doctrine, since Kudelka has so brilliantly found that third possibility in every conceivable way, shape or form.

Here's how I see the matter.  I think a lot of people assume that The Nutcracker can be staged as a classical ballet, or that it can be staged as a light-hearted romp for family entertainment at Christmastime.  Kudelka triumphantly combines both possibilities, staging the whole with his customary innate musicality and leavening the mixture with a strong dash of folk-dance style.

Kudelka`s Nutcracker asserts the folk element in the very first scene.  The families gathered for the Christmas party in the barn may be mostly well-to-do, but the dances are very folk-like in character, and definitely have a Russian flavour.  It`s appropriate since Kudelka and designer Santo Loquasto have chosen to set their version in a country home in Tsarist Russia.

One of the key features of the show is the amount and detail of choreography assigned in this and other scenes to the children.  Students of the National Ballet School form a key part of the cast, and they actually have a good deal of dancing to do.  Sadly, many versions consign the children to simply running around, more like actors than dancers. 

The Russian element comes right to the fore with the arrival of the mysterious Uncle Nikolai, the one really stereotypically Russian-looking principal character.  The magic he conjures up, including a pair of dancing bears (male on roller skates, female in pointe shoes) and his dancing horse, definitely caters to the fun side of the equation.  But consider the horse dance more carefully.  The stomping choreography for Nikolai and the high kicks by the horse fit hand-in-glove with the snapping rhythms of the music (originally meant to be a "Diabolical Dance of Puppets").

For sheer spectacle it's hard to beat Loquasto's magnificent staging of the magically-growing Christmas tree.  This scene also highlights the spectacular sound of the National Ballet Orchestra, the music mounting phrase by phrase into an overwhelming tidal wave of orchestral tone.  This moment never came across as well in the vast barn of the Sony (then Hummingbird) centre, where the sound thinned out in the cavernous interior.  Incidentally, the same moment also demonstrates the necessity of live performance.  The best speakers in the world can't duplicate the tummy-wobbling effect achieved by the players in a live performance.

The battle scene is the most frenetic of the entire performance, and (for my money) the least successful as the stage becomes heavily over-crowded.  But then comes the magical transformation as the scene opens up to a snowy birch forest and the first of three great female roles in the ballet, the Snow Queen.  She dances a strongly classical pas de trois with two male dancers as her Icicles, to some of the most heartfelt music Tchaikovsky ever composed.  Xiao Nan Yu was graceful as ever in this role.  The succeeding Waltz of the Snowflakes extends this classic white scene with the arrival of the corps de ballet as a flock of swirling, twirling snowflakes.

The setting for the second act is the red and gold hall of the Sugar Plum Fairy's palace, dominated by the giant golden Faberge egg from which the Fairy emerges.  Here, the children are  transformed into lavishly-costumed courtiers, all in red with gold accents.  As an example of the detail lavished on this production, note that no two of the dresses worn by the female courtiers have the same patterns.  In the lengthy series of national dances, Kudelka has devised effectively varied choreography to keep sameness at bay.  The Arabian Dance in particular is noteworthy.  There are not that many different steps or positions involved, but everything is done at a slow, languorous pace in keeping with the music.  The oft-repeated lifts become incredibly graceful when take  at such a slow speed!

Some hilarious comic business ensues with four inept child-chefs chasing a runaway roast goose, and four large waiters dancing with Nikolai, performing numerous cartwheels across the dinner table,

The next virtuoso solo number is for a Bee which leads off the famous Waltz of the Flowers.  This solo is technically challenging and was immaculately performed by Jordana Daumec.  Following this comes the third great adagio movement of the ballet, the pas de deux for the Nutcracker Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy.  Piotr Stanczyk and Heather Ogden danced this classical grand adagio with passion and grace. 

As a musician, I can't help commenting on the basic simplicity underlying all three adagios in the score.  The Christmas tree grows to a simple rising and falling phrase which is repeated over and over, each time a step higher and each time more lavishly orchestrated.  The Snow Queen and her Icicles dance to a slower, shorter version of the same figure.  The adagio for the Prince and the Fairy is a plain descending scale.  Perhaps only Tchaikovsky could have imbued these simple melodic figures with a whole world of passion, tinged by a strong air of melancholy or regret which contrasts most effectively with the bouncy nature of the rest of the score.

Nothing so clearly shows the rich detailing of this ballet than the fact that, even after seeing it more than ten times, I still find new things every year that I haven't noticed before.  As a synthesis of comic good fun with classical dance, this Nutcracker is hard to beat!