Alexei Ratmansky’s Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre establishes a new benchmark in demanding pas de deux. Like all of the choreographer’s work, the movement blends effortless naturalism with extraordinary physical challenges. The lead couple twirl and jeté in an over-the-top romantic fantasy, culminating in a one-armed lift that raises the ballerina above her prince’s head in a vision of ecstatic love. Pointe asked Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg, one of the couples on whom the pas was made, to describe their recollections of rehearsing it.
When Alexei Ratmansky was making the grand pas, he alternated between demonstrating the steps and discussing the mood he was aiming for; then he would observe how each couple interpreted his direction. We all became a part of his creative process, and he allowed each couple their individual touches within the set choreography.
For David and myself, that freedom was intensely inspiring as well as a challenge. Alexei’s intricate neoclassical choreography is far more difficult in terms of execution and stamina than the traditional Nutcracker pas. His movements constantly go on and off balance, change direction and vary dynamic. For instance, many quick sequences are juxtaposed with brief moments of stillness or sustained expansion. The tricky, subtle partnering pushed David and me to be absolutely in sync with each other as we strived for a balance between abandon and control.
I enjoy dancing with David, and we both love examining the details of partnering that hopefully add up to a seamless whole. During the rehearsal process, we explore how much or little we need to help each other in various moments. In particular, the one-handed, seated lift at the end of this strenuous piece is an act of carefully coordinated willpower.
Before stepping onstage, we remind each other to stay in the moment and to be connected to and inspired by the music. This pas de deux is first and foremost an expression of our characters’ emotional journeys, and my primary aim is to convey Clara’s inner sense of wonder and her playful, imaginative nature—along with her delight and trepidation at becoming a ballerina and falling in love with her prince.
The grand pas is both terrifying and captivating. All in 10 minutes. When Gillian Murphy and I initially started working on it, my notions of the traditional version were left at the door. Alexei began with small nuances here, gentle touches there. I wrongly assumed this would continue throughout. As rehearsals pushed on, the music building with every measure, the pas became a luminous beast. The choreography starts ever so quietly, then flips up and around, lifting us as high as humanly possible, embodying love’s sense of abandon.
The best way to learn how to portray Alexei’s movement is to watch him. The way he moves is grounded, full, complete, and it’s the clearest indication of what he wants. Instead of a classical dancer doing classical steps, he asks for a richer movement quality, one that communicates true emotion through the choreography. The best example of this comes in the pas de deux’s opening section. The child versions of Clara and the Prince, who have embarked on this magical journey together, find themselves at the front of the stage. As doors open at the back, they see their older selves, Gillian and myself. The two pairs of dancers, children and adults, mirror each other’s movement, creating the illusion that the children are seeing themselves in the future. They study one another, and in a youthful rush of excitement change places, the young couple leaving the stage while their older selves continue. With this short sequence, Alexei conveys a sense of innocence and naiveté.
I’ll never forget our initial studio run-through before the premiere. The company members watched silently. Gillian and I started slow, soft, and then moved faster, quicker, twisting in unison, lifting like a torch. We were at turns terrified, driven, uninhibited, and by the end of the pas, our energy was spent. The room erupted. It was then, in between gasps for breath, that we knew Alexei had conceived a creative masterstroke.