Review: ‘The Nutcracker’

ABT - "The Nutcracker"
Photo by Doug Gifford

It’s the day before Christmas and so, no surprise, the question has come up, “Laura, how many times have you seen the ‘Nutcracker’?”

I haven’t keep count. More than 200? Could be. But I continue to go—and not just because I have to. I guess it must be something like love. That’s the case with Alexei Ratmansky’s joyful and glittering production for American Ballet Theatre, which was co-presented with Segerstrom Center for the Arts from Dec. 14-23.
This year, I went with two purposes. The first was to see principal dancer Christine Shevchenko, who recently took on the role of grown-up Clara. The second was to re-view this ballet in light of the national discussion taking place regarding the racial stereotyping that still dogs many of the Act 2 variations, in particular the costumes, makeup and choreography of the Chinese Tea Dance.
If you haven’t heard, an organization called Final Bow for Yellow Face has taken the lead in advocating for an end to “outdated representations of Asians in the Nutcracker and other ballet performances” (from the website). Companies and individuals around the country are signing a pledge on the Final Bow website, promising to advance that goal.
Gestures in some Tea Dances, such as shuffling feet and pointed index fingers, as well as exaggerated makeup and a Fu Manchu mustache are some of the humiliating Asian caricatures; they are no different than blackface is in being a degradation of African Americans. Final Bow and others, including UCI professor Jennifer Fisher, are advocating for the end of racist stereotypes. It’s important to note this doesn’t mean the end of “The Nutcracker” or of these variations. The answer is to make them more true to the national dances of the countries represented, and to fashion costumes, makeup and hair styles that aren’t about changing a dancer’s ethnic identity.
Ratmansky, who choreographed this “Nutcracker” in 2010, largely sidestepped caricature in his steps and gestures; the previous times I’ve seen the ballet, the only scene that has rubbed me wrong has been the Arabian dance.
I went to the company’s final Socal performance on Sunday. The Chinese dance features a man and woman and is heavy on acrobatics and repeated turns—no pointy fingers, hands held straight and flexed. There’s the occasional respectful bow. It does look as though the dancers are wearing a light shading of white pancake makeup and a long ponytail is attached to the hat that the male dancer wears; this suggests a hairstyle known as a queue, which has a controversial past. Judging by degrees, this scene falls on the better end of the scale.
The Arabian dance is meant to be humorous, but I find I can’t laugh at the hen-pecked husband with a harem of four women (though most of the audience always does). Roman Zhurbin sensitive portrayal, and the women’s costumes end up redeeming the scene for me, because at least they’re not depicted as “exotic” dancers in pseudo-belly dancer garb. Instead, they wear gorgeously rich-looking, long tunics and pants. The Spanish dance, filled with swishing skirts for the women and toreador moves for the men is both respectful and reflective of the culture.

ABT - "The Nutcracker"
Photo by Doug Gifford

As far as Shevchenko’s performance, she has exceptional gifts, and it’s easy to see why she was promoted last year to principal dancer. She carries herself like a princess and makes the beat and color of the music visible by the way she chooses to phrase her steps. She has balance and a sweet glow; it will be exciting to watch her develop. Her Nutcracker Prince, Thomas Forster, had some partnering difficulties, especially guiding her through pirouettes. His beats were mushy and landings less than solid, but he, too, is new to this role.
There were some standouts Sunday, including Duncan Lyle as the overheated Drosselmeyer and Cameron McCune as the Recruit doll. The exquisite wave-like beauty of Ratmansky’s Waltz of the Flowers washes over me anew every time I see it, and the female corps de ballet certainly deserves recognition for its delicate and spot-on delivery.  Kudos, too, to the four “bees,” who had perfect timing as they tossed the women.

ABT conductor Charles Barker was enjoying the final performance pre-Christmas with some clowning about in the pit during the overture. The Pacific Symphony made a few false notes, but Tchaikovsky was mostly well-served. And so were we.

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