December 21, 2007
by David Ollington
The Nutcracker warrants note less as a ballet and more as a cultural phenomenon. Ballet companies depend strongly on the revenue acquired by their annual productions of this work. This time of year, one can consistently catch a production of The Nutcracker, even on an international level.
After a Sunday matinee of the Kansas City Ballet’s current production, William Whitener, the company’s artistic director, said, “You ask people if they go to the ballet and they say no. You ask them if they go to The Nutcracker and they say yes.”
Audiences crowd theaters to see the production. Maybe the public views this ballet as a Christmas ritual, not an artistic endeavor.
The ballet Giselle delves into the mysteries of the Romantic Movement in the arts, exploring the afterlife and challenging the limits of a ballerina’s versatility. Martha Graham detailed the inner landscapes of archetypal heroines. Merce Cunningham used dance to question the foundations of our philosophical experience of existence. In contrast to these heavier terpsichorean manifestations, The Nutcracker presents beautiful dancing to the accessible sounds of Tchaikovsky’s music. Its popularity lies in its comforting splendor.
The choreographer Lev Ivanov first set the work for the Imperial Russian Court in 1892. He and Tchaikovsky based The Nutcracker on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman. Hoffman’s piece gets darker and more frightening than The Nutcracker we all know.
Since then, many major ballet choreographers (and some modern) have taken on the task of staging it. Todd Bolender, artistic director emeritus of the Kansas City Ballet, created the version now showing at the Music Hall.
To really appreciate Bolender’s genius, just compare his version to others. He succeeded at making the Kansas City Ballet’s The Nutcracker unique to our city in various ways.
The plot focuses on young Clara, danced by Missy Linville. Clara, like Dorothy and Alice, takes a mystical journey into an alternative reality. Bolender keeps her young. In some versions, Clara’s transition into make-believe has her transform into a grown woman, a skilled ballerina.
Mikhail Barishnikov choreographed The Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre in 1976. Gelsey Kirkland danced the role of Clara. Kirkland danced with a svelte, short body, embodying the eternally pubescent, lying somewhere between girl and young woman.
Clara’s grandfather, Herr Drosselmeyer (Paris Wilcox), a toymaker, presents several toys to children at a Dickensian, Christmas gathering. One toy is a working nutcracker in the form of a soldier. In alternate versions, once the story veers away from reality into magic, the nutcracker toy transforms into a fully-grown man, billed as the Nutcracker Prince.
Bolender transforms the small toy into a young boy, danced for the Kansas City Ballet by Cianan Lesley. By keeping Clara and the Nutcracker Prince young children, Bolender avoids suggesting that Clara’s dream symbolizes a venture into adulthood. Bolender’s version tells a child’s story. Clara remains a child as does her consort, the Nutcracker Prince. He made a brilliant choice for the city that houses Hallmark Cards and the wholesome land of Johnson County. Bolender succeeded in lightening the darker components of the story.
Fitting for the Christmas pageant, The Nutcracker includes an ensemble of ballerinas dancing in white tutus, representing flakes of snow tumbling from the sky and dodging the winds. Bolender made his version unique by adding two central characters to the Snowflake dance: the Snow Queen (Stayce Camparo) and King (Luke Luzicka). Most versions of this dance are done by an ensemble of women.
By accentuating two dancers in “Snow,” Bolender created comfort by framing two dancers with a supportive ensemble. Watching the audience enter the theatre at the Music Hall, one sees a variety of individuals, but one type of person predominates the viewers: little girls. Many girls dream of the attention afforded a star ballerina, and Bolender again touched the soul of our city by adding a star to a dance usually done by a more democratic group.
Clara and the Nutcracker Prince sail on a flying sleigh to the Kingdom of the Sweets. The Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier (Stefani Schrimpf and Juan Pablo Trujillo) serve as the central royalty of this land.
In other versions, Clara and The Nutcracker Prince transform into these roles. In Bolender’s version, the children sit upon thrones and witness the dancing for all of Act II, reflecting ourselves, suggesting that Kansas City audiences, by witnessing this dancing, transport themselves to a land of make-believe.
Schrimpf dances the Sugar Plum Fairy with adroit confidence. Trujillo supports her with his usual masculine majesty, attentive and clean.
Each entrée in Act II represents a different kind of candy; the music that accompanies them makes up the most recognizable and famous of the evening.
Paris Wilcox sheds the yellow and black cape of Drosselmeyer and dances “Arabian” in Act II with Rachel Coats. This segment could rank as Bolender’s signature work. With full-bodied sensuality, the two dancers snaked through the space, Wilcox smoothly manipulating Coats in fluid sculpture.
The Russian Dance (also titled “Ribbon Candy”) fortunately featured Geoffrey Kropp in the central, male role. Kropp’s long limbs fail to deter him from flying into the air with his jumps. He also shows skill with work lower to the floor, clean turns and exciting footwork. Please, Kansas City Ballet, feature him more. His musical dancing milked the strongest applause of the evening.
As Act II draws to a close, Clara and her youthful Prince mount the flying sleigh, and fly away, we presume back to “reality.” The message, again, that sitting and watching beautiful dancing transports us all to a different world, one inhabited by the beautiful Kansas City Ballet.
The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 23 at the Kansas City Music Hall. Tickets may be purchased by telephone at 816-931-2232, in person at the Kansas City Ballet Box Office located at 1616 Broadway or online at www.kcballet.org. Tickets can also be purchased at Ticketmaster locations or can be ordered by telephone at 816-931-3330 or online at www.ticketmaster.com.
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.
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