Times Dance Writer

Gelsey Kirkland's controversial recent book, "Dancing on My Grave," is a work of autobiography, not dance criticism. Yet its revelations about Mikhail Baryshnikov's personal and professional attitudes towards women bring into focus what has always been curious, dubious or dead wrong in his choreography.

Consider Baryshnikov's highly familiar, annually televised 1976 staging of "The Nutcracker," which was danced very drearily on Tuesday by American Ballet Theatre (without Baryshnikov) at the start of a six-day engagement at the new Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

By now, nearly everyone familiar with any "Nutcracker" knows that Baryshnikov boldly revised the plot of the 1892 classic--that he made the ballet deeply serious, even psychological. But didn't he also transform it into a fantasy of male power and manipulation? Seeing the ballet in the light of Kirkland's book suggests no less.

Currently a guest artist with the Royal Ballet, Kirkland was once Baryshnikov's lover, dance-partner and employee. Her anecdotes and insights help clarify many of Baryshnikov's artistic choices in this project. A pattern emerges.

In structure, his version represents a rite of passage for young Clara: a journey toward womanhood. Yet, strangely, there is no female role model: Baryshnikov replaced the ballet's traditional, beneficent female authority figure (the Sugar Plum Fairy) with males, expanding the roles of Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince into controlling presences.

These men now guide Clara into every action and decision. Significantly, the only major independent action allowed her is saving her man by killing the Mouse King.

Moreover, there is practically no independent female dancing . Baryshnikov has cut the most obviously feminine divertissement in the score (the Arabian Dance), and choreographed the other display numbers of Act II as male power trips--sometimes explicitly (the "Dance of the Reed Pipes," in which a shepherd playfully terrorizes his girlfriend), elsewhere more subtly (the Chinese Dance, in which a woman does small, hobbled jumps on pointe, while her male partner does flamboyant leaps opposite or behind her).

In the last scene, Baryshnikov has made Clara virtually a pawn in a dispute between Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker Prince over whether she is to continue in her dream or awaken--and he has appropriated for this purpose the music for the adagio of the Grand pas de deux, traditionally a showpiece for the ballerina's artistry.

There are only two extended opportunities for women to dance free of incessant male manipulation: the Waltz of the Snowflakes in the first act, which Baryshnikov did not choreograph (though he did make it represent a command performance ordered by Drosselmeyer), and Clara's solo in the last act, which even the celebrated dramatic instincts of Alessandra Ferri could not illuminate in vivid emotional terms on Tuesday.

Ferri and her Nutcracker Prince, Kevin McKenzie, danced the same roles a year ago in Shrine Auditorium with a rapport utterly in absentia on Tuesday. She looked more waif-like and dreamy than before--an adolescent lost in her thoughts long before the Christmas party ended. And, as usual, her dancing exemplified extraordinary flow and modulation, with arm and leg motion always equally urgent, effortless, polished yet free.

However, her characterization seemed oddly glazed--has she lost interest in the ballet?--and, coupled with McKenzie's typical reticence, left "The Nutcracker" hollow at the center. McKenzie has never struck sparks in this role, but Tuesday he met its technical challenges with extreme caution and, even so, grew increasingly overtaxed by the lifts in the second act--with mishap very narrowly averted in one passage.

As Drosselmeyer, Victor Barbee mimed and partnered with great authority and dared to play the character as a man of his own age (32), if not younger.

Obviously, this approach brought unresolved sexual implications to his relationship with Clara that had never come up in the interpretation of Alexander Minz (the much older character dancer who originated the role in this production), but it proved preferable to the caractere fakery practiced by a number of young Ballet Theatre Drosselmeyers last year.

The production as a whole looked ragged at best in Costa Mesa, with corps work badly synchronized and with soloists who once brought something personal to their assignments (Nora Kimball in the Spanish Dance, for instance) now just delivering steps by rote.

Gil Boggs and Robert Wallace did enliven the Russian Dance with extra stretch and verve, but the Waltz of the Flowers proved absolutely deadly--the worst moment in what was certainly the most mediocre night of ballet that the Orange County Performing Arts Center has thus far offered.

Boris Aronson's candybox-Expressionist settings and Frank Thompson's fussy costumes looked well-preserved and the remarkable acoustics of Segerstrom Hall gave the orchestral playing a new sense of presence evident even in the delicate overture. Unfortunately, Paul Connelley's dutiful conducting flattened out the climaxes and drained the life from Tchaikovsky's score. An empty ritual.

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