It feels as if the entirety of holiday traditions lives within this one ballet – and with good reason.
Legend tells us there have long been stories of Nutcrackers coming to life for reasons of mirth and happiness and ill – the spectrum of human behaviors – in Eastern Europe. The published original story is 205 years old and was penned by E.T.A. Hoffman as a fairy tale meant to scare and excite adults.
In 1844, Alexander Dumas wrote a story that was first translated as a ballet in 1892 in St Petersburg, Russia, 129 years ago. Dumas is an interesting figure, as he was the son of a famous general of African descent and a French mother. Some scholars speculate that even though Dumas’ father died when the writer was only four years old, the imagined romance of military action transposes into the grandeur of the battle scenes in his Nutcracker story and the 1892 ballet.
The ballet has been choreographed from that date forward to the music of Tchaikovsky.
The Nutcracker was first performed in America 77 years ago (San Francisco). Today, some estimate that 40% of a company’s yearly income can be realized in a seasonal sharing of a Nutcracker run. In short, America loves this ballet.
The audience present on November 24th at the Kennedy Center reflected the broad appeal of the coming-of-age Christmas fantasy set to the emotive, romantic, and familiar Tchaikovsky score.
This re-telling, the faithful Balanchine version staged since 2017 by MCB, continues the remarkable 67-year tradition of the tale, a tale to which Balanchine first danced in Russia at the age of only 15. As you may have imagined, he was the Prince in his 1919 performance.
So much history and tradition can create real expectations for an audience.
We all know the score. We all know the big moments and await the special unveilings. That anticipation puts special pressure on a performance, the orchestra, and the dancers.
The pas de deux must (a) land every move, including the well-known lifts and (b) land those moves in concert with the orchestra. Such requirements can make it hard for the audience to suspend disbelief and get lost in the story. Only the art created by talent and teamwork can get past the expectations and lore that are just too heavy in many Nutcracker productions.
Fortunately for the Kennedy Center audience, MCB has both talent and teamwork. After a sleepy start, the troupe soared past the staid to create an exhilarating and memorable experience. Ballet is back – for balletomanes and regular folks alike this holiday season, Miami City Ballet performs November 24-28 in Washington, D.C.
After witnessing the potential of this herculean effort, moved north from Miami and carried back south again, this reviewer remembered the traditions that pandemic pushed away.
Holidays bring us together, and artists devote their lives to giving us the continuity of great masterworks over time. Their work endures and provides audiences the comfort of traditions. And the best find a way to make their mark on age-old classics.
Nowhere has a pineapple crown been more appropriate or a sherbet-colored cadre of costumes been more welcoming and familiar… more timely or more timeless.
Bravo, Miami City Ballet and Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra!