'Nutcracker' standard has 1,001 versions

"COFFEE. Arabia. The kingdom of Yemen. Coffee mocha. Oriental Dance. From 24 to 32 bars of charming and voluptuous music." These were the instructions given to Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky by choreographer Marius Petipa for what became the Arabian Dance in "The Nutcracker," a ballet that Petipa soon assigned to his assistant Lev Ivanov. The result is the most widely heard example of symphonic Orientalism ever composed -- though don't look for its sources in the Middle East. "Tchaikovsky took a Georgian lullaby for the Arabian Dance," choreographer George Balanchine maintained in an interview. "It's a Georgian melody, not Arabian -- but who cares? It's a small masterpiece." Most choreographers use the music to create a kind of harem fantasy combining classical ballet technique with torso undulations suggesting desert exotica. After all, it's the only opportunity for sensuality and maybe even a little bare skin in the entire ballet. The images seen here suggest the differences and similarities of major stagings in the Southland this Christmas: testaments to the enduring hold on our imaginations of what Petipa and Tchaikovsky planned back in 1892.

-- Lewis Segal

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