by Emily Kate Long
Oh, Nutcracker. Few things in ballet are as adored, as abhorred, as pervasive, as cherished, or as misunderstood. Nutcrackers are often deplored for their lack of plot cohesion (or of plot, period) and lack of originality. Dutch National Ballet’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is above reproach on both counts. It is a real story ballet that can stand on its own without needing the Christmas season as an excuse to exist.
This film version was produced in 2011 from a live recording that same year. The stage production premiered in 1996, with choreography by Toer Van Schayk and Wayne Eagling that is tastefully classical while still being excitingly athletic.
Van Schayk and Eagling depart considerably from the traditional Nutcracker story, always for the better. Set in Amsterdam on St Nicholas Eve 1810, the ballet opens in a cozy upstairs bathroom where oft-stilted young Clara, lovable troublemaker Frits, and their frivolous teenage sister Louise prepare for the St Nicholas party. The Party Scene includes some delightfully magical stage effects: a slide projector, a mechanical cat, and a walking Nutcracker doll, all of which appear in huge scale later in the ballet. The dances flow seamlessly as natural elements of the plot and provide a great deal of foreshadowing. The shapes of the choreography are pleasantly surprising, and the crispness of the Dutch style is evident in the dancing of children and adults alike. That crispness carries over to all of the mime sequences, making an already-sensible plot even easier to follow.
Further reworking ties up the typically loose ends of the Transformation and Battle Scenes. A dream of her Nutcracker’s kidnapping by the Mouse King frightens young Clara downstairs, and Nutcracker ends up with a fatal battle wound. Music that is traditionally the climax of the Snow Pas de Deux becomes an outburst of sorrow from Clara that matches Tschaikovsky’s drama the way no partnered allegro, overhead lift, or supported pirouette ever could hope to. The Prince appears as an incarnation of Drosselmeijer’s nephew (rather than a human version of the Nutcracker doll) to console a now grownup Clara, danced with expressive precision by Anna Tsygankova. A costuming detail I love here is Clara’s blink-of-an-eye costume change from a clean nightgown to one with a war-tattered hem. The Mouse King and his minions are an intermittently present threat in the Snow scene, through which Drosselmeijer leads Clara and Prince to their final adventure inside the Magic Lantern we first saw at the St Nicholas party.
Act 2 opens with a swirl through the lens of the Lantern and a daringly playful pas de trois for Clara, Prince, and Drosselmeijer that would be any little girl’s dream—tosses that skim the floor before swooping up, around, and overhead.
I’ve always found the re-appearance of Battle music in the Land of Sweets for the Prince’s mime in front of a semi-circle of disinterested and irrelevant Divertissement dancers to be extremely problematic. Eagling and Van Schayk solve this entirely by giving the Mouse King the victory in Act 1 and bringing him back onstage to be slain before our eyes by the Prince inside the Lantern—but not before the now super-sized mechanical cat can reach an enormous paw in from stage left to try to grab a snack! More characters from Act 1 appear inside the Lantern as part of a slide show: Frits has been shackled by an Arabian slave-driver; Mother, Father, and Nurse appear as Russian dolls, and Louise and her suitors are parodied in a Greek Dance using the Reed Pipe music. The Waltz of the Flowers features a beautiful motif of fouettes to arabesque, a nod to one of classical ballet’s most iconic shapes, and Tsyganovka’s variation in the Grand Pas de Deux is immaculate. Here again, the plot is supported by fine costuming details—Clara’s tutu sports the same pattern of decorations as her nightgown, and Prince’s tunic, though less than flattering, features a sash reminiscent of the ribbon he gave Clara before leaving the party.
Clara wakes from her dream to find that Frits has had the same dream as she. The curtain falls on the two siblings, a group of children (who, presumably, also shared the dream), and Drosselmeijer and his nephew all raising an arm to the audience, as if acknowledging our participation in their adventure and inviting us to come back any time.
For an adventure like this, who wouldn’t want to?
Here’s a clip from the film:
BIO: Emily Kate Long began her dance education in South Bend, Indiana, with Kimmary Williams and Jacob Rice, and graduated in 2007 from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School’s Schenley Program. She has spent summers studying at Ballet Chicago, Pittsburgh Youth Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, Miami City Ballet, and Saratoga Summer Dance Intensive/Vail Valley Dance Intensive, where she served as Program Assistant. Ms Long attended Milwaukee Ballet School’s Summer Intensive on scholarship before being invited to join Milwaukee Ballet II in 2007.
Ms Long has been a member of Ballet Quad Cities since 2009. She has danced featured roles in Deanna Carter’s Ash to Glass and Dracula, participated in the company’s 2010 tour to New York City, and most recently performed principal roles in Courtney Lyon’s Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Cinderella. She is also on the faculty of Ballet Quad Cities School of Dance, where she teaches ballet, pointe, and repertoire classes.