Although productions of the “Nutcracker” ballet pop up like sidewalk Santas during the holiday season, the work was not a great success at its premiere in 1892, nor was it a particular favorite of the composer, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
“The awareness that things are not going well torments me and agonizes me to tears, to the point of sickness,” Tchaikovsky wrote while trying to compose the music. “A consuming depression constantly gnaws at my heart, and I have not for a long time felt as unhappy as now.”
Strange language for one of his least tormented, melodious and appealing works, which can be seen locally in productions by several schools and companies, and in Los Angeles by the Joffrey Ballet.
Despite its evident appeal today, the “Nutcracker” didn’t make its way out of the Soviet Union until 1934, when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet first presented it in London. The ballet didn’t reach this country until 1940, when the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo ventured an abbreviated version.
And it wasn’t until 1944 that Willam Christensen mounted a complete “Nutcracker” for the San Francisco Ballet, possibly in response to public interest generated by Walt Disney’s 1940 film “Fantasia,” which incorporated the “Nutcracker” Suite.
What really put the work on the Christmas-season map was a full-length production that George Balanchine choreographed for the New York City Ballet in 1954. That production has become the touchstone for all opulent and magical “Nutcrackers.”
Many smaller companies, however, have discovered that they could use the work to introduce children to ballet and, not coincidentally, have a cash cow that would keep them afloat throughout the year.
Such productions, including Ballet Pacifica, Ballet Repertory Theatre and Orange County Metropolitan Ballet locally, typically incorporate students from their ballet schools, giving the kids some stage experience and ensuring that parents will fill the auditorium.
But what is the “Nutcracker” that these people see?
Originally, the choreography was assigned to Marius Petipa, the giant of 19th-Century Russian classicism who choreographed “The Sleeping Beauty” and a host of other important ballets.
But after the work went into rehearsal in September, 1892, Petipa fell ill, and Lev Ivanov, who had choreographed the lakeside acts of “Swan Lake,” took over.
How much he set is still in debate, as is his stature as a choreographer.
Apart from the two acts of “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker,” Ivanov left little for posterity to judge. Tchaikovsky never even mentions him in his correspondence.
But little of Ivanov’s choreography for “Nutcracker” survives, anyway, apart from the Waltz of the Snowflakes in Act I and the grand pas de deux in Act II.
Later choreographers have had to create their own steps. In doing so, they have also had to face the dramatic problems in the libretto noticed by critics as early as the first production:
* The plot comes to a dead stop at the end of the first act, with the second merely tacked on to provide an excuse for dancing. Worse, the leading characters--Clara and the Nutcracker Prince--hardly dance at all, and the leading dancers--the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier--serve no purpose in the plot.
* What exactly is the role of Councilor Drosselmeyer, and should he be considered a sinister or an avuncular figure? A case can be made for either characterization.
* What happens to Clara at the end of the ballet? For that matter, who or what was the Nutcracker Prince before he was the Nutcracker doll?
Of course, one can dismiss any of these questions by claiming that the work represents a childhood fantasy and that there is no need for analytic scrutiny.
But a number of modern choreographers have felt it necessary to have a go at rectifying the problems they see.
They have added psychological underpinings to the ballet, linked the two acts by such means as merging the roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy, or otherwise exercised their imaginations.
Consider, for instance, the Royal Ballet of Great Britain production, choreographed “after Ivanov” by Peter Wright in consultation with Roland John Wiley, author of the authoritative and wonderful “Tchaikovsky’s Ballets,” published by Oxford University Press.
In this production, we learn even before the ballet begins that Drosselmeyer’s nephew has been turned into the Nutcracker doll by the evil Queen of the Mice, who is not even in the ballet and who appears in no other version! The lad can be released from the spell only by the love of an innocent child. In this way, Wright attempts to provide motivation for all the events to come.
The ballet, which is set in Victorian England but otherwise follows the traditional story, ends with Drosselmeyer embracing his nephew. But what has happened to Clara? Essentially, she has vanished. One problem solved; another introduced.
Yuri Grigorovich’s 1966 staging for the Bolshoi Ballet was the first to link the two acts by merging the roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Indeed, everyone in this manic, stultifying production dances, dances, dances. Drosselmeyer becomes a jovial magician who gives Clara a life-size Nutcracker doll (actually a woman in costume) and follows her throughout the story.
Grigorovich also links the two acts by making the mouse king and his army pursue Clara (or Masha, as she is called in this version) and the Nutcracker Prince into the upper branches of the Christmas tree, which is the choreographer’s version of the Act II Candyland.
Toward the end of the second act, Masha appears to be on the verge of marrying her prince but wakes up, realizes she has been dreaming and finds happy consolation with the Nutcracker doll she finds in her living room.
Not so the Clara in Mikhail Baryshnikov’s controversial 1976 staging for American Ballet Theatre, seen locally and over television since 1977, with Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland.
Apart from Rudolf Nureyev’s darkly psychological staging for the Royal Swedish Ballet in 1967, Baryshnikov’s is arguably the most Freudian. Baryshnikov turns the ballet into a psychological drama about a young girl growing up.
He focuses the ballet on Clara and the two men central to her making a transition from childhood to adolescence--her godfather, Drosselmeyer, and her fantasy-figure, the Nutcracker Prince. There are no children in this production. (The adults of the party are transformed into the mice of Clara’s dream.)
Besides making some minor changes in the music (such as cutting the Arabian Dance), Baryshnikov’s most radical idea is to bring Drosselmeyer into the grand pas de deux between Clara and the prince, making it a pas de trois.
Drosselmeyer actually breaks into their dancing to carry the heroine away from the prince. The production ends with Clara staring into the daybreaking sunlight, presumably realizing that the events of the second act have all been a sweet dream to which she must say farewell in order to grow up. So much for the children’s tale. . . .
Robert Joffrey wanted to create a Victorian American “Nutcracker,” full of references to prints and engravings of the period. He also wanted to fill the stage with warmth, affection and activity. There are reportedly 56 roles for children in this production, with the kids appearing as party guests, mice, soldiers or toys.
Joffrey lived to see the premiere in 1987, but unfortunately, because of failing health, had to rely upon others for its final execution. The current production, which opens today and continues through Dec. 30 at the Music Center of Los Angeles, may not represent his final thoughts. Gerald Arpino, Joffrey’s partner, now artistic director, choreographed the Waltz of the Snowflakes and the Waltz of the Flowers. Those credited for the staging attempted to follow the 1940 Ballet Russe version by Alexandra Fedorova, which Joffrey had seen when he was a child.
Joffrey emphasizes realism to the extent that the family members, friends and toys of the first scene are transformed into characters in Clara’s dream in the following scenes. Holding the entire work together is Drosselmeyer, who plays the most active role of any of these productions in overseeing the events. But Joffrey’s Drosselmeyer is benign, if not overly intrusive, and the ballet moves with unimpeded, relentlessly fast pacing.
So there you have it. Four major productions, each with certain gifts and each with its own problems. It may help to remember that even Tchaikovsky was unhappy with the first production. He found it too elaborate, “even too magnificent,” he wrote his brother Anatole. “The eyes weary from this luxury.”
TENORS, ANYONE?: Vyacheslav Polozov, the Soviet tenor who withdrew from Opera Pacific’s “Aida” in 1988, has withdrawn from Opera Pacific’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”, scheduled to open Feb. 20 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.
Opera Pacific officials have not responded to repeated requests for an explanation of the change, which was announced in a company brochure.
Polozov had withdrawn from Verdi’s “Aida” so that he could sing in Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, according to his New York agent.
Replacing Polozov as Riccardo will be Taro Ichihara on Feb. 20, 24 and 28, and Tonio DiPaolo on Feb. 22 and March 2.
Other casting additions and changes for the three-opera season, which opens Jan. 12:
* In Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” (Jan. 12-19):
Hans Gregory Ashbaker will replace Florin Georgescu as Pinkerton on Jan. 13 and 18, according to a company spokeswoman. (Georgescu’s participationhad never been announced to the press, but his name appears in the Opera Pacific season brochure).
Gordon Ostrowski will be stage director. The Washington Opera sets are by Ming Cho Lee, costumes by Zack Brown. Joan Arhleger will be the lighting designer.
* In “Ballo” (Feb. 20-March 2):
Anne Ewers will be the stage director. The Washington Opera sets and costumes are by Zack Brown. Stephen Ross will be the lighting designer.
* In Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles” (Feb. 15-March 3):
Ai-Lan Zhu will sing Leila on March 1 and 3. There will be no alternates for Zurga and Nourabad, as originally announced. David Gately will be stage director. Kevin Ward will choreograph. The Fort Worth Opera sets are by Johniene Papandreas. The costume designer will be Marjorie McCown; Stephen Ross will be the lighting designer.
Information: (714) 979-7000 or (800) 436-7372.