Bittersweet Fairy Tale

Alexei Ratmansky premieres a darker, more dramatic "Nutcracker" at American Ballet Theatre
Published in the December 2010/January 2011 issue.

Ratmansky teaches a bit of choreography at a children's audition

Photo by Gene Schiavone

Back in St. Petersburg in 1892, when those four courtier-artists (director Vsevolozhsky, composer Tchaikovsky, ballet masters Petipa and Ivanov) were concocting their magical grownup-child ballet The Nutcracker, no one could have dreamed that 100-plus years later Nutcrackers would pop up every Christmas on stages all over the world. And this December, another one pops up in New York, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Clara Stahlbaum, naughty little Fritz, their parents, party guests, weird uncle Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker Prince, the mouse army—all will live again, starting December 23, in American Ballet Theatre’s lavish new production.

 

This new Nutcracker, though, won’t be another ritual of sweetness and light—not just “the Sugar Plum Fairy dancing to entertain Clara,” in the words of its choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. It will be something that matches the “very enigmatic score,” as Ratmansky puts it. “This is music that makes you cry,” says the choreographer, who’s grown famous for ingeniously emotional responses to a whole range of music. And he’s right: If you listen to Tchaikovsky’s music with fresh ears, you hear those notes of anguish underneath the familiar themes. Think of the tree-growing music—it’s majestic and grand, yet deeply sad. When he wrote it, Tchaikovsky might have sensed how fragile was the cozy Tsarist life he knew. The Mariinsky prima ballerina Gabriela Komleva once refused to dance the role of Clara: She thought the story too light for the anguished music.

 

But the story itself has dark places. E.T.A. Hoffmann, its German author, was a three-time refugee in Europe’s Napoleonic wars; in response, he wrote tales of fantasy and horror. Hoffmann’s 1816 Drosselmeyer was a much scarier magician than the figure in the ballet, and his mouse king was nasty: He could turn beautiful people into ugly ones. Even when Tchaikovsky and Petipa lightened the story for the stage, they left in some scary things. Armies of mice taking over your living room at night aren’t exactly reassuring.

 

Ratmansky wants to keep those dark parts of the story in his new production; at the same time, he believes Nutcracker should be family-friendly. “And I still want it to be classical,” he adds. “Honestly, I don’t have interest in dance without pointe shoes. I don’t know of anything more—what’s the word—full of opportunities. Pointe gives another dimension to dancing.”

 

A tall order: to make a Nutcracker that’s light enough for children and dark enough for adults; pure enough to be classical, surprising enough to be new. But anyone doubting Ratmansky’s skill at resolving paradoxes has only to hear him talking. A few months ago, the 42-year-old choreographer sat backstage at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and quietly answered questions about his Nutcracker plans. As he talked, he grew intense; his brown, slightly-pop eyes lit up. He adores the 1954 Balanchine Nutcracker that holds sway every Christmas at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. His won’t be like that, though it’s hard for him to describe something that’s not finished. But he can explain a few things: His new snow scene won’t be the usual wintry benediction, but instead, “a bit dangerous, not sweet.” His first-act party scene won’t be “all hobbyhorses and frilly petticoats, not quite as warm as usual.”

 

And he wants to deepen the grand pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier that serves as the climax to the ballet’s second act. The music for that pas de deux seems to him “strangely unrelated” to the action that comes before. “It adds a lot of dramatic color to quite a light story. For me it sounds like Tchaikovsky’s painful look back on the beautiful times of childhood and growing up. Like looking from a distance.”

 

Audiences will get to see Ratmansky’s understanding of these complicated emotions, deepened by his two earlier encounters—or half encounters—with the ballet nine years ago. For the infamous revisionist, Mikhail Chemiakin-designed 2001 Nutcracker at the Mariinsky Theatre, the one that dwells on mouse soldiers in Napoleonic retreat, Ratmansky was replaced in mid-choreography, presumably because he didn’t see eye to eye with the famous scenic artist. In that same year, he was grabbed by the Royal Danish Ballet to finish a half-choreographed Nutcracker being prepared for Tivoli Gardens (“That was the craziest month in my life,” he says).

 

Now, with many more ballets under his belt, and a stint as director of the mighty Bolshoi, ABT’s resident choreographer gets what he didn’t have before: time to work and distinguished collaborators. One of these is décor and costume designer Richard Hudson, of The Lion King fame. “He has exquisite taste,” says Ratmansky, “a feel of shape and form. I saw he could lead me somewhere I hadn’t been yet.” If preliminary sketches are right, Hudson has found that balance between traditional and fresh that Ratmansky wants. The waltz flowers have flouncy tutus of intense magenta. The Rat King wears an elegant gray waistcoat, pink baroque shoes and a hat of rat heads.

 

In the end, though, it’s the music that’s the key. “It’s so rich and deep—every new choreographer can get something out of it.” And Ratmansky didn’t even like Tchaikovsky’s music when he was young. He confesses, “I thought it was too emotional. I much preferred Stravinsky and Prokofiev.”

 

What’s changed? “I don’t judge anymore,” he says quietly. “Tchaikovsky knows how to look into the deepest cores of your soul. I don’t want this aspect to be lost behind a toy story. There are things in his music—and I hope in the dancing—that can’t be put into words. My main goal with this Nutcracker is never to forget about this side of Tchaikovsky.”

Elizabeth Kendall is a dance critic based in New York, at work on Revolution and the Muse, a book about Balanchine’s youth in Russia, and his ballerina-classmate, Lidiia Ivanova.