December 23, 2010

Ovation's Battle of the Nutcrackers

     The last couple of years, the Ovation channel has been holding a "Battle of the Nutcrackers" at Christmas time. The last few years, Mark Morris's Hard Nut has won. No real contest as most of the other video productions were incredibly boring. This year, the Hard Nut was out of the mix --- the producers were probably hoping to create more of a contest by excluding the Morris dance.
     Five productions were shown: Two classical (Royal Ballet and the Bolshoi); one politically informed version (Berlin State Opera Ballet); one cartoonish Cirqueoid production (Casse Noisette Circus); and one by Maurice Bejart.
      The quick rundown: The Royal Ballet was very well-mannered, slow-paced, and tedious. The Bolshoi version, choreographed by Yuri Grigorovich, has adults standing in for the children and a curiously no-character-dancers Act II. In the Berlin production, Clara is abducted by revolutionaries in a prelude, which makes no sense and just sets the wrong tone for a holiday ballet. The Casse Noisette Circus is has a fairly traditional Act I, but goes wonkers in Act II --- like having flamingos and zebras in the Waltz of the Flowers. And the Bejart version --- well, it is not really a Nutcracker -- it just uses the music. By virtue of their subject material or incredibly slow pacing, these were all unsuitable as holiday ballets, especially as entertainment for children.
      What I think is the problem is that seeing the Nutcracker as "family friendly" is an American phenomenon, and a fairly recent one (1944 San Francisco). The American versions mostly use the Hoffman tale, coupled with the original Act II Maryinsky sequencing. And, as a vehicle for showcasing its ballet school, almost all companies (large and small) use children to play the parts of children, unlike most of the Ovation-shown versions. The action and the orchestrations are also designed to clip along to keep the kids in the audience engaged.
     Since it isn't a part of their popular culture, Europeans feel free to treat the ballet as a purely adult entertainment. Hence, all the messing around with the storyline, character assignments, and casting.
     All of this aside, the Bejart version is a good ballet --- maybe not a great one, but one worth seeing. I am not sure why it was included in this group of Nutcrackers, though, as the only relationship it has to the original ballet is the score. As a Nutcracker, it is a bust on a number of levels. But as a choreographic exploration of a life and career in dance, it works. The warmed-over Freudian stuff about Bejart's mother and his sexual fantasies is trite. However, as an insider look at the creative process --- pretty cool. The underlying theme --- an artist needs to have a solid foundation in the technique of his or her craft. What better music to use than the  ballet in which almost every dancer has performed? Add to this Bejart's incredible choreographic vocabulary and surrealistic imagery.... I liked it.

UPDATE:  I will be doing a similar review of the 2011 battle. Stay tuned.

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