Appearing on the boards this holiday season are two versions of “The Nutcracker” that could not be more different in concept and staging.
In Washington, we traditionally have had two “Nutcrackers” — one by the local Washington Ballet, the other imported for a week’s run at the Kennedy Center.
The Kennedy Center’s pick varies from year to year, and over time, that has produced a surprising number of clinkers: One by the Kirov Ballet and another by the Bolshoi come immediately to mind.
Now the American Ballet Theatre is back with its lackluster version choreographed by the company’s director, Kevin McKenzie. It’s odd that Mr. McKenzie has settled for such limp staging when he filled his reworked “Swan Lake” with so many inspired, vibrant touches.
ABT’s first act finds a small group of dispirited adults gathered at a Christmas party. At first, their mannerly poise provided some welcome relief after the near-hysterical busy-ness of the Washington Ballet’s current production, but the lack of engagement onstage was a downer.
ABT’s entire act seemed underchoreographed and underrehearsed. Adult dancers weren’t given much to do, and they brought no personality to their roles. The battle between the nondescript rats and the toy soldiers was likewise undistinguished.
Little Clara — or Marie as she is sometimes called — is the ballet’s putative heroine. It is she who hovers on the brink of adolescence, her romantic feelings awakened by her godfather Drosselmeyer’s gift of a toy nutcracker. The second act is Clara’s vision of a perfect society, where people have beautiful manners — unlike her rude brother Fritz — and perform charming Russian, Chinese, Indian and candy-cane dances in various versions of the ballet.
Both companies disturbingly dispense with Clara, for whom all these divertissements are given. She disappears in ABT’s version and slinks into a dark corner in the Washington Ballet’s production.
ABT’s second-act setting, with its oppressively gaudy flowers, was not as attractive as the first. Its most obvious innovation is a rather silly unicorn who pads around on soft little hooves before settling his head comfortably on Clara’s lap.
Much of the corps’ work in the second act looked hastily thrown together, giving this major company the look of a provincial troupe. The overall impression was not helped by an orchestra that sounded weak in the string section.
What saved the day was strong dancing by the principals. At Wednesday’s opening night, Xiomara Reyes was a sprightly, youthful Clara; her nutcracker Prince, Herman Cornejo, flew through the air with buoyant elan. Veronika Part was a beautifully regal Swan Queen, and Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes offered powerful dancing that could, however, have been tempered with more musical nuance.
It has been a while since the Kennedy Center brought us a worthy “Nutcracker” (although the Joffrey Ballet’s version, seen last year, does have its charms). Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1987 version of “Nutcracker” for ABT was full of life and inspired touches, but it doesn’t seem likely that it ever will be revived.
George Balanchine’s “Nutcracker,” danced by the New York City Ballet, is universally considered the greatest of them all, but it has never been done in Washington. Now that the company is once again a regular visitor, it would be wonderful if the Kennedy Center could arrange for us to see his magical staging here.
If performances by the NYCB can’t be arranged, two fine companies also dance the Balanchine version — the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Miami City Ballet. I can’t think of a better Christmas present than to see Mr. Balanchine’s wondrous Christmas tree grow on the Kennedy Center stage.
WHAT: American Ballet Theatre in “The Nutcracker”
WHEN: Today and tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
TICKETS: $25 to $112