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Moscow Ballet's "Great" Russian Nutcracker

This should already be clear, but in case it is not: true ballet requires live music. The recession continues to threaten the very existence of ballet companies, and using recorded music has become a common economic survival strategy. Thus it was no surprise to hear recorded music, and pretty badly played and recorded music at that, accompanying the performance of the Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker, last Wednesday night in the Music Center at Strathmore. The Web page linked in the previous sentence makes no mention of the use of recorded music, although Strathmore is not a theater and does not have an orchestra pit. Large black curtains were hung to cover the chorister seating and a hanging proscenium was in place to create the sense of a stage. There was no place for an orchestra, with large speakers pumping out canned music on either side of the "stage" instead.

Sarah Kaufman chose not to review this production in the Washington Post, writing instead about the ballet horror film Black Swan, and she really buried the lede in this regard in her review of the Washington Ballet Nutcracker. The 2008 run of that production, reviewed in these pages, was the last for which the company hired an orchestra to play the score during the performance of the holiday favorite. Kaufman, whom many including myself think is a prodigiously talented writer, praised many elements of the production but chose to leave the criticism of the canned music to the final paragraph. This was a rather kind gesture toward the company, which makes no mention anywhere on the Nutcracker page of its Web site about the music being played from a recording. It is very likely that many people, who did not read to the end of Kaufman's review, will show up at the Warner Theater expecting to hear a live orchestra.

As they enter the theater this month, they may hear members of the orchestra that used to play for the Washington Ballet's Nutcracker, playing Christmas carols outside the Warner Theater to protest the company's use of recorded music. (There was a lengthy piece on the story this week in the Washington City Paper.) It's going to be a long, cold winter for freelance orchestral musicians: Matthew Guerrieri beat me to the punchline by noting that Joseph Horowitz was telling orchestral musicians they should expect to supplement their income with more freelance work just as Daniel Wakin was reporting that such freelance work was all too rapidly disappearing.

Alastair Macaulay asked the question in the New York Times: why is The Nutcracker so popular in the United States? Even to the point that people will flock to December productions of the ballet even without an orchestra? To give a glimpse of the work's popularity, Macaulay wrote a pile of reviews of productions he saw all across the United States (including the Moscow Ballet). Even beyond the use of recorded music, the Moscow Ballet's touring production is stripped down to its bare essentials, to maximize profits in a large number of brief runs across the United States (from Minneapolis to Youngstown and beyond). The company flies in a few soloists, a core professional cast that is augmented with a gaggle of local kids for many of the roles. (Most of the audience seated around us oohed and ahhed as they saw their family members take the stage.) The feature numbers, Arabian and Chinese dancers and so forth, all had smiling kids running around and mugging shamelessly (or adorably, depending on your perspective) from the edge of the stage, as well as big strolling animals that played for gags in the background. This part of a rather sugary choreography grated on me after a while, but the kids in the audience (including Miss Ionarts, out for her third Nutcracker) loved every minute of it.

The production, tweaked by multiple directors over the years, transforms the story in unusual ways: Masha (the Russian name given here for the character of Clara or Maria) follows the Nutcracker, transformed by her uncle Drosselmeyer into a prince, into the Snow Forest, where they meet the Russian Ice Father and Snow Princess, and beyond into a Land of Peace and Harmony. Both the Mouse King and Drosselmeyer, who appears as a sort of guiding hand throughout the work (danced by the Ballet Master, Andrei Litvinov), return in the second half. Pairs of dancers present national dances, with the music for Mother Gigogne and the Polichinelles used instead for a reprise of all of them. Masha and the Prince take the music for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her consort, with a handsome pair of principal dancers, Ekaterina Bortyakova and Akzhol Mussakhanov, who are making their U.S. debut on this tour, heading up the cast. Much of the choreography for the small corps (only eight dancers) seemed four-square and somewhat unimaginative, while the feature dances veered dangerously toward feats of strength more appropriate for circus acrobats (the Arabian pair, Viktoria Kiriat and Titus Popescu, were particularly astounding). The story, by E. T. A. Hoffman, is at some level about a little girl dreaming of big girl things -- facing dangers alone, drinking adult drinks, falling in love -- and just once a more disturbing production that broached that serious side of the work would be welcome. What sort of Nutcracker would Calixto Bieito dream up?

Sally Michael Keyes, the Director of Public Relations for the Moscow Ballet, wrote the following letter to the editor, which we excerpt here for your further information about the production under review:
The company travels with nine separate, hand-painted backdrops, more than any production that I am familiar with; there are over 200 hundred costumes, most of which are hand-sewn with beads, ribbons, and more, and some of which are designed by international costumer Olga Dumova; and we also travel with extensive props including a hand-made puppet set and puppets in Act I, toys for all the guests, “horse dolls” that the party guests play in, a Maypole, a hand-designed and -made cannon modeled after those found in the gardens of St. Petersburg, which shoots roses and more in Act II.

The organization flies in over 70 dancers each year from Russia. You can imagine the intensity of getting visas and paperwork in order for that number of dancers, never mind the cost. The dancers audition for the Ballet Master in Russia and he determines who makes the cut for the tour. Half of the group travel on the West Coast Tour and the other half travel on the East Coast Tour. They include the Ballet Master for each tour, principals, soloists, and corps, which is at least 35 professional, Russian-trained dancers on stage for each performance. Our “corps” is not 8 but 30 dancers and in relation to almost every other touring ballet performance that I know of, that is not small.
To clarify my point about the corps de ballet, if it is not clear in the review, there were eight dancers who performed as a group (for example, as the snowflakes and flowers), not including the soloists.


jill sawyer said...

I went to an excellent "Nutcracker" staged by the Baltimore Ballet Company at Goucher College in Baltimore this past weekend. They used recorded music and it in no way detracted from the ballet. Besides, we all know the music by heart--it's the dancing we go to see.

Charles T. Downey said...

Well, then, perhaps you could just have the dancing accompanied by silence. I am glad that you did not feel cheated by having a recording.

George said...

Mr. Downey,
Although nonetheless late, I would like to add my comments regarding the same company's performance at the Mahalia Jackson Theater in New Orleans, Louisiana last 28th of December. Much like you, I was severely disappointed when arriving at the venue only to see there was no orchestra pit. Once the "ballet" began I was horrified by the amateurish piped-in music that only served to detract from the, albeit mediocre, dancing and storyline. I attended a performance of the Nutcracker a number of years ago by the San Francisco Ballet Company with live orchestra and incomparably better acting. To make it worse, I brought my wife, sister-in-law, and her boyfriend, none of which had ever seen the Nutcracker or any ballet. Even they commented how disappointing it was. And to close, I, just as you, saw no mention of pre-recorded music to be played in lieu of live ensemble. Disappointed is just not a strong enough word!