The land of sweets

Children dance in pastel candy cane costumes during George Balanchine's The Nutcracker performed by New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center

We visited the “Land of Sweets” and other parts of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker”™ last night as PBS aired an episode of “Live From Lincoln Center” featuring a performance by the New York City Ballet, the New York City Ballet Orchestra and 50 children from the School of American Ballet in New York.

James and I take a special interest in productions of the famous holiday ballet because both our daughters have performed in “The Nutcracker” with Ballet Arizona under artistic director Ib Andersen, who premiered his own choreography for the work in 2006. His is one of several productions of “The Nutcracker” being performed this season on Valley stages.

We were struck throughout by the many differences in the two productions, a valuable reminder of just how fascinating it can be to see and compare various versions of the same work. You can read the story of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” told by The New York City Ballet on their website — where you’ll also find plenty of fun facts about how it’s translated to the stage.

We noticed early on that children are featured much more prominently in the New York City Ballet production. There are more of them, and they get more time on stage. They spend more time dancing, and acting — and it appears NYC is more blessed than Phoenix in the boys who ballet department. Both boys and girls featured in the party scene are more rambuctious, and the children’s choregraphy is more complex in many cases.

Herr Drosselmeyer has a whole different vibe in the New York City Ballet production. There’s one particular scene in the Ballet Arizona production where I get a real sense of foreboding as Herr Drosselmeyer walks slowly towards Clara, but there’s little of that tension in the New York City Ballet production. It’s hard to dread a man wearing knickers and swanky black shoes. Forget the nutcracker doll. I want that man’s footwear.

We both have a strong preference for the Ballet Arizona set during Act I. But there’s one scene in the New York City production that I found quite magical — Marie’s early encounter with a mischievous Mouse, which transpires on a darkened set with lighting that projects giant shadows into the wall. There’s no Clara in the New York City Ballet production — instead, Fritz’s older sister is named Marie.

Try challenging your children to spot the differences when they watch various productions. Those seeing “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” for the first time might be surprised to see both Columbine and Harlequin performed by women, or to discover that the Mouse King has seven heads, each wearing a tiny gold crown. Those accustomed to a final scene featuring Clara awakening from a dream in the comfort of her own home will instead find Marie and her Prince whisked through the sky in a reindeer-drawn sleigh. The audience is left to wonder — was her journey just a dream, or something truly magical?

I adore the Act II set for the New York City Ballet production, a deliciously indulgent homage to old-fashioned sweets, frosted ornaments, colorful fruits, elegant candy and delicate lace doilies. Rather than sitting atop a throne of sorts, Marie and the Prince sit behind a counter topped with cake, fruits and candies — sometimes nibbling as they watch chocolate, coffee and tea dance nearby.

Costumes featuring colors of bright jellied candies and pale pastel mints add to the nostalgic feeling that you’ve just strolled into a candy shop of yore. As each dance transpires, the backdrop is lit with a different pop of color — sometimes pink like a flamingo, other times orange like a freshly-sliced guava. Sometimes purple, sometimes blue.

Still, bright shades of legwear sometimes made sets and lighting appear tame. Think bright yellow, like that one crayon you’re always afraid to pickup for fear it’ll taint your whole masterpiece. Someone with the New York City Ballet has a thing for tights and tutus that nearly glow in the dark.

But it’s the New York City Ballet prop choices that I found most intriguing. When the Snowflakes dance during a final scene in Act I, each holds something shaped a bit like a fan — but with five large balls on top that remind me of the pom poms my kids used during preschool craft time. James noticed it too, saying that he’d rather see the dancers “doing beautiful things with their hands.” Small unadorned Christmas trees held by the young Angels who open Act II felt just as out of place.

We’re creatures of habit, I suppose, so seeing a female soloist rather than a couple perform what we call the Arabian Dance felt jarring. In the Ballet Arizona production, this dance feels sensual and sultry, proving that “The Nutcracker” is perfect for both family outing and date night. We also missed all those kicks we’ve come to associate with the Russian Dance. I was charmed by the Candy Cane who jumped ten-plus times through a hoop, but James wanted his Cossacks back.

Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times saw 27 productions during his 2010 “Nutcracker Marathon Tour” — then named the Ballet Arizona production one of his favorites. Its dancers bring an artistry and athleticism rarely found in such balance and bounty. As charmed as I was by watching the New York City Ballet perform “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” I’m still rooting for the hometown teams.

If you’ve yet to see a local production of “The Nutcracker” this season, think about attending a performance before “Live From Lincoln Center” re-airs Sunday afternoon. That way you can make your own comparisons and draw your own conclusions.

— Lynn

Note: Click here to find the Raising Arizona Kids calendar of events for December, which includes several productions of “The Nutcracker” — and here to read an earlier post featuring holiday dance productions. Click here to learn about an upcoming PBS broadcast of “The Little Mermaid” performed by the San Francisco Ballet.

Coming up: Poetry in motion, Children’s art classes


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