Choosing the Best Nutcracker
Published: January 1, 2014 (Issue # 1792)
Just as nature has its seasons, so do the arts. In Russia, the wintry period spanning the Western and Orthodox Christmas is known as УNutcracker SeasonФ Ц and justly so.
Inspired by the E. T. A. Hoffmann story УThe Nutcracker and the Mouse King,Ф the famed ballet tells a magical love story that develops around Christmas between a poetically-inclined girl and a scary-looking Nutcracker who goes to battle with the dangerous Mouse King. The Hoffmann novella appealed to Marius Petipa, the French choreographer who in the late-19th century defined Russian classical ballet. In 1891, Petipa commissioned composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky to create a score for a show based on the tale Ч and the story of УThe Nutcracker,Ф a title synonymous with Russian classical ballet, began.
For more than a century, HoffmannТs has reigned supreme on Russian stages every December.
Indeed, December is usually the most exciting and most challenging month at the Vaganova Ballet Academy as the best students have earned a chance to perform on the stage of the Mariinsky Theater in УThe NutcrackerФ during the Christmas and the New Year holidays. In the darkest and often the coldest weeks of the year, rehearsals go full steam ahead in the AcademyТs spacious and slightly chilly studios.
Everyone at the school is always excited about УThe Nutcracker,Ф and it is different every year because the school has a constant flow of new talent making the ballet their own. These shows almost always bring surprises, with the students displaying talent that neither their ballet masters nor the dancers themselves would ever expect.
TchaikovskyТs УNutcrackerФ is one of the most beautiful pieces of ballet music ever written yet it has proved a tough nut for quite a few choreographers. For starters, ballet legend Petipa simply gave up and left the work to Lev Ivanov in 1892. His more courageous descendants, including Vasily Vainonen, Fyodor Lopukhov and Maurice Bejart, all had a go at staging the ballet.
VainonenТs version Ч an adaptation of IvanovТs work Ч is the one performed by the majority of Russian companies, including the Vaganova performances at the Mariinsky and the shows of the Russian Ballet Theater, a dance company that performs the ballet at the Hermitage Theater.
However, the Mikhailovsky Theater, which rivals the Mariinsky as another former Imperial ballet theater, prefers a newer version credited to the contemporary St. Petersburg choreographer Nikolai Boyarchikov. While rooted in the traditions forged by Petipa, BoyarchikovТs work has its own choreographic language that appeals to the human soul and emphasizes the spiritual. Boyarchikov is an intellectual choreographer who thrives on metaphors and associations, while refraining from exploiting clichés. There is always a humane message in his ballets and in his version of УThe Nutcracker,Ф it is the simple truth that kindness turns an individual into a human being.
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