Tonight Matt and I went to go see the Boston Ballet’s new Nutcracker at The Boston Opera House, closing night of the season. We’d been in 2010 to see the last staging of the old set and costumes, which were being updated with great fanfare for the following season. I wanted to see what had changed, and (I hoped) improved from the 30-year-old version I grew up with.
I’m not a huge ballet aficionado, but I know my way around. I grew up taking dance, with friends who went on to become serious dancers, and every year that I can remember as a child we went as a family, and as a class to see The Nutcracker. That was when it was still at The Wang Center, and people got dressed up, and going to the ballet was a big deal. I must have seen it at least 20 times, and so you could say I knew the previous production well, and for me its setting and costumes, along with the choreography, hold an immense amount of nostalgia. I was thrilled we got to see its last staging.
Which is not to say that it wasn’t in need of an update. So let me be clear, I was excited tonight to see what had been changed, I hoped in some big, exciting ways. And essentially what was changed was the set. The costumes, to an astute observer, were Edwardian rather than Victorian, ok, but most people in the cheap seats can’t tell the difference between an empire and a drop waist. And though the photographs shows beautiful detail, it was all lost on me, up in the balcony, even with my binoculars. The set was drastically different, much more understated, even sophisticated. The birch backdrop rather than the pine trees was a stunning change. But everything else just seemed a little boring, compared to the glitzy excess of the previous setting. It was pretty, but essentially underwhelming.
And that is also how I would describe the dancing. For the most part, there was a lot of extremely pretty twirling and pointing, but none of the more ambitious elements I remember from previous versions. See, I’m not a ballet critic, I have no idea what the moves are actually called, but a real ballet critic does, and he says this in the NY Times:
…this [Nutcracker] has a bad tendency for the same standard turns and jumps to pop up in one dance after another. (This version also features a less standard recurring step: the gently hopping turns on the spot in full-stretched arabesque. By the time the Sugar Plum does it in her solo, you’ve already seen it danced by Snowflakes in unison and three Pastorale performers. Both big waltzes — Snowflakes and Flowers — were too blandly pretty.)
Bland, pretty, repetitive. Essentially unambitious and unimaginative, which is what the adult world looks like to a child. And now so does this ballet. What a shame, to take such a vibrant, fun, imaginative, spectacular story and dull it down to make it more “refined.” Many of the sweet and funny moments from the previous production were eliminated (the stretcher in the battle scene; the melodrama of the Rat King’s death; the charming lime-light hogging of the baby rat, and later the baby black sheep just to name a few). Which would have been fine, if some new elements were added. But this was merely an act of reduction, of subtraction, reducing the child-like joy and silliness of these parts, without adding anything to replace it.
Another thing worth saying is that the new sophisticated/adult context makes the racist caricatures in Act II even more offensive. When they were embedded in a world of camp and candy, of glitz and apparition, I could suspend my critical faculties a little more easily, and take them as a remnant of a past (misguided) time. But though little had changed, and all the choreography was dulled down, the racism was amplified because of its new context.
The dumbing down of the dancing also didn’t make any effort to address the gender imbalance that continues to reign in this production. While men get the tumbling moves and the showy flourishes, the women get to twirl and twirl and twirl and that’s about all. No, wait, sometimes they get picked up – that gets almost as much applause as the tumbling the (all-male) Russian dancer ensemble does.
I could have perhaps forgiven the lackluster choreography if the dancers had really shone. But for the most part they were stiff and one-dimensional, and in the group numbers there were serious timing problems. This was the final performance of the season, so maybe they were all tired. Or maybe there were a lot of unannounced cast changes. But it was still extremely disappointing to see so many exquisite musical gestures completely ignored by the choreography or missed by the dancers.
And lastly, I just want to say about the new policies of The Opera House to allow (extremely) late seating, and snacks and candy (in plastic, crinkly packaging) into the theatre: this is not the movies. Also, this is not someone’s living room. If people can’t manage to refrain from eating for 40 minutes, then they don’t need to come to the theatre.
Here’s hoping for more updating, perhaps with a more imaginative choreographer.