Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Still Savoury Nut: James Kudelka's Nutcracker at 20

 James Kudelka's The Nutcracker is celebrating its 20th anniversary at the National Ballet of Canada. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

The Nutcracker not only lives on, it's gotten better with age. Having just seen the 20th anniversary production of James Kudelka's version of the seasonal ballet classic as performed by the National Ballet of Canada, I can say that the passing years have lent the home-grown production a lovely patina. The choreography, while still devilishly tricky, has softened to the point that interpretative performances trump the pyrotechnics. Individual dancers in command of entertaining acting skills (Harrison James, Dylan Tedladi, Meghan Pugh and Stephanie Hutchison, for instance) better stand out and the story, which previously tended to get lost in the shadows of Santo Loquasto's ravishing sets and costumes, is easier to follow. Not that there is much of a story to tell.

E. T. A. Hoffmann's original 1816 The Nutcracker and the Mouse King book, the inspiration behind Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's 1892 ballet, provides the general idea of a broken Nutcracker who comes to life at night to battle with toy soldiers against an army of bayonet-wielding rats. But the real source material appears more to be earlier ballet versions in which tropes like a growing Christmas tree and a tiara-wearing Snow Queen are now deeply embedded components of The Nutcracker narrative. Kudelka knows the formula but still ended up creating a ballet that forges its own path. Instead of a girl's coming-of-age story, as is typically the case with most Nutcracker ballets, Kudelka's version is a portrait of two squabbling siblings, a girl and a boy, Marie and Misha (played, respectively, by Jacqueline Sugianto and Adam Hone), who unite in dream to conjure the fantasy that takes them on a journey of the imagination through a land of ice and snow.

Giving the genders an equal footing was, for Kudelka, important. "I wanted to equalize the roles," the Canadian-born choreographer told me in advance of his ballet's 1995 world premiere in Toronto. "I grew up in the National Ballet School during the time that Erik Bruhn made the prince more important in Swan Lake and Rudolf Nureyev made the prince more important in Sleeping Beauty, not more important than the girl but more important than he was. And I thought, why can't a little boy go on this trip?"

Their ultimate destination is the Land of the Sweets as imagined as a czarist palace in which there is food galore and a gigantic Fabergé Egg sheltering the Sugar Plum Fairy (first soloist Tina Pereira). The children watch spellbound as the Sugar Plum Fairy emerges from her golden nest to dance a final act pas de deux with the Nutcracker Prince who is their stable boy, Peter, transformed into the hero they always knew him to be. In the first act, where Peter initially appears, sweeping the straw, he is kind and playful with Misha and Marie, contenting them with games while their reserved and distant parents prepare to receive the multitude guests arriving at their Christmas party. Peter is an early ally whose later appearance as a handsome prince-turned-friend makes sense. Elsewhere the ballet is deliberately nonsensical in making room for a dancing horse, a bear on roller blades and a herd of unicorns on pointe. There are more visual delights, not least being the brilliant colours of the sumptuous costumes and the sparkle in the tutus. The eye candy continues to entice, 20 years after first titillating the senses. But perhaps for different reasons than originally intended.

McGee Maddox (as Peter) with Artists of the National Ballet of Canada in The Nutcracker. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

When commissioning Kudelka to create a new Nutcracker for the National Ballet in 1995, former artistic director Reid Anderson asked only that the ballet successfully compete with the mega- musicals then entering Canada from Broadway and the West End. Shows like Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera and Les MisĂ©rables were awash in special effects, and audiences loved them to the point of wanting to leave The Nutcracker behind. Celia Franca's 1964 version, depicting a Christmas party in Victorian dress, just wasn't cutting it any more. In 1992, the ballet attracted 68,000 people and in 1993 64,000 people. By 1994, those numbers had declined to 52,000. The work that Anderson called the company's "bread-and-butter ballet" had lost its bite. In ordering a new version, replete with hydraulics, the intention was to bolster the ballet's bottom line. It's unclear whether it has. The National Ballet today reports that 997,393 people have seen the Kudelka Nutcracker since its debut 20 years ago, a figure which translates to around 52,000 a year. (This year’s figures are not in yet.) Seen from this point of view, the new Nutcracker might not have grown its audience as much as halted an impending mass exodus. That's still good news, especially when you consider how much has changed in the years since the Kudelka Nutcracker first opened. (Incidentally, The Nutcracker cost $1.6-million to make, and at the time that was the most the National Ballet had spent on a new production.)

Today, the entertainment offered by hand-held devices is a potentially bigger threat than theatrical f/x for keeping audiences from coming to the ballet. Remote-controlled curtains and a canon that shoots coloured confetti into the crowd are decidedly lo-tech wonders in comparison to the 24/7 flow of digital distractions offered up by your cell phone. That audiences continue to buy tickets suggests that The Nutcracker is a spectacle whose allure is evergreen, with or without advances in stage craft. Ironically, while the original intent may have been to create a Nutcracker for the 21st century, the ballet's enduring appeal is that it remains rooted in tradition. Not only is The Nutcracker classical dance, it is also a show that unabashedly embraces Christmas, and all its trappings. While public buildings want to banish garlands and greetings card want to wish you an insipid Happy Holiday, The Nutcracker is defiantly festive and family-oriented. Kids love it because they come to it clean, with no pre-judgement (and political correctness). They quite openly ooh and ahh when encountering a dancer spinning like a top before their eyes. For them, and perhaps for all of us enchanted by The Nutcracker, it's the magic created by the body in motion that's the biggest retro thrill of all. And that will never go out of style, not as long as there's dancing. Here's to another 20 years.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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