Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Nutcracker

I have admitted before that I am absolutely unqualified to comment on dance.  My connections to the art are a roughly 10-year subscription to the Joffrey Ballet, and that I often do a flexibility workout taken from the New York City Ballet Workout book (which I recommend highly; I gather there are a couple of DVDs as well, I can't comment on them).  So I have a strange relationship with dance; I have almost no ability to compare one dancer or company with another, but I do know what a fondu or an arabesque is.

All that said, this is my blog, so I can make a comment without knowing much of anything.  I've seen the Joffrey production of The Nutcracker quite a few times, and, the other night, I watched the current PBS show with the San Francisco Ballet.  From this limited perspective, I enjoyed the PBS show, but not anywhere near as much as did the commenters at the web site.  I recognize the danger here, comparing something on TV I've seen once to something I've seen live 10 or so times (dance really does suffer when it's seen on the screen, as the depth gets flattened almost intolerably).

One thing I have noticed is that there is far more of a star hierarchy at most ballet companies than there is at the Joffrey.  Whether San Francisco or ABT, there seems to be a bewildering array of titles, principal, soloist, corps, and so forth, whereas the Joffrey is more nominally egalitarian.  Obviously there are stars, like the recently departed and much missed Maia Wilkins, but a dancer who is a flower in The Nutcracker might show up in the spring program as the star of a dance.  It's my impression that we don't see that in most other companies.  The result: the corps at the Joffrey is of far higher quality.  The wife and I saw ABT dance Swan Lake a few years ago, and I was amazed at the lack of unison in the corps, something you almost never see with the Joffrey.

The same was true in the SF Ballet Nutcracker, anything with an ensemble was shaky, with none of the precision I've come to expect.  In the minor roles there are also some problems; for example, one of the dancers in the Arabian coffee piece seemed to have major problems with landing relatively simple jumps.  And I have to believe that affects the choreography.  Gerald Arpino (who, sadly, we lost this year) created a couple of the ensemble dances in Robert Joffrey's Nutcracker, most notably the Waltz of the Flowers, which is a wondrous piece with non-stop movement and stagecraft.  In comparison, the San Francisco version is woeful indeed, with long solo turns by the Sugar Plum Fairy alternating with the aforementioned questionable ensemble work.  I wonder if Arpino knew that he would have a strong ensemble, so the Waltz became a non-star turn, while the SF choreographer knew he had to work around a less-outstanding corps.

To continue with the negative comparisons, the second acts are quite different in staging.  In the Joffrey version, the stage is full, with a great density of people and movement.  The SF version, in contrast, is far more stark, with all the business focused on whoever's dancing at the moment - the rest of the vast stage is empty.  Maybe that's a matter of taste.  If your major concern is a focus on the principals, you might not want a lot of stage business.  Personally, I prefer the swirl of activity, the sense of continuity that comes from, for example, having Clara onstage at all times observing what is, after all, supposed to be her dream.

Look, I don't want to be overly negative here.  I'm fortunate in that I live close enough to see the Joffrey production, and many don't have that opportunity.  The San Francisco version is lovely, and there is some superior individual dancing (this Nutcracker Prince guy is very good, though he looks distractingly like Justin Long, Mac from the PC vs. Mac commercials).  If you like The Nutcracker, this is a fine presentation, well worth your time at the holidays.

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