From some people’s perspectives, my own included, the Christmas season is something of a dance wasteland. It seems like the entire city is swamped with all Nutcrackers all the time. And given that the Nutcracker is as familiar as St.Nick’s laugh, the prospect of seeing something new and different this season is dim indeed.
So it was with hope that I ventured out to the Annenberg Center to see the Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker,” on tour and visiting Philadelphia for a two night run. The Moscow Ballet has a stellar reputation, and the prospect of seeing a different take on an old chestnut, if only on a grander scale, was tempting.
I am of two minds about this Nutcracker. The actual production more or less earns a thumbs-up. My personal reaction is more problematic. Let’s take the former perspective first.
I acknowledge and accept that certain allowances need to be made for touring companies. The Nutcracker demands grand, elaborate sets, but it’s not often feasible to haul such sets around on a national tour. As such, the set for this Nutcracker is mostly painted backdrops—good ones, mind you, and they certainly are of a grand scale. Designed by Carl Sprague, the stage ends up being beautiful enough so that the absence of an elaborate standing set is not missed.
What is impressive are Arthur Oliver’s costumes. They are absolutely gorgeous—Victorian flavor overlaid with baroque glamour that dazzles the eye.
The choreography, as shepherded by Nobuhiro Terada, is more of a mixed bag. One of the things that both propels the Nutcracker’s popularity and holds it back creatively is the omnipresence of children performers. Granted, appearing in the Nutcracker is usually the first stage experience most ballet dancers have as children, but there’s only so much that can be done with them. During those sections featuring children, one doesn’t want to choreograph the more experienced dancers so elaborately or innovatively as to overpower the children. That would too seriously unbalance the scene. As such, including this production, these passages tend to be pretty basic choreographically. Beautiful and graceful, perhaps, but not particularly challenging.
In other passages there is more room for the dancers to stretch and strut their stuff, as with this production with the Mice and the Snow Maidens, or with some of the solo turns in the Chinese or Arabian variations. The Mice sequence, particularly the Rat King, demands a great deal of athleticism, and the Moscow Ballet dancers were certainly up to the task, leaping and prancing across the stage with energy and finesse.
Overall, the “Great Russian Nutcracker” is everything a seasonal dance-goer could expect from a production of the Nutcracker. The production is beautiful, sweet and well-executed. The dancing exemplifies all the qualities one expects to see in top-tier classical ballet.
The Moscow Ballet delivers all that is expected from a first-rate Nutcracker, but there are no surprises. And here we come to my other reaction: the sense of deja vu while watching it was overpowering. As beautiful and well-done as it was, in the final analysis, it was just another Nutcracker.
[Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut Street] December 12-13,2016; annenbergcenter.org.