A year in Dnepropetrovsk

An American volunteer in Ukraine

The Nutcracker (Щелкунчик)

I am finding it difficult to relate the full extent of my disappointment with this performance. The choreography was dull and lacked passion; specific director’s choices significantly detracted from the plot and confused the drama; even the usually magnificent orchestra was rather undynamic and featured quite a few sour notes from the horns. Admittedly, I am spoiled by the NY City Ballet (and their larger-than-life tree!), but this performance was more akin to a college troupe at a very artisitc institution than to the company of a major city.

The sets were far from dazzling. Clara’s home was a clever arrangement of curtains and a scrim of a tree, obviously painted, which, later in the act, was awkwardly pulled upwards to reveal the larger base underneath, simulating growing. This would be a minor and admissable disappointment, were the dancing able to carry on the show, but the company was continuously out of step and rather lackluster. Clara and the nutcracker were fine soloists, but nothing out of the ordinary; I found myself describing their performance in terms of what they did not do: they did not mess up, they did not stumble, they did not miss an entrance, they did not miss a cue.

Were this not enough, the story was actually quite difficult to follow. Clara was gifted not a doll, but a lifesize human who, from the start, began to dance with her. Whereas in the version I remember, brother Fritz pulls the toy too hard and it breaks, here the man inexplicably fell to his knees and was carried under the tree to rest. Clara, concerned, came late at night to see him and encountered giant mice. Unphased, she fell asleep in the nearby armchair, whereupon the Christmas tree began to grow. Seeing as how all the toys and the mice were already human-sized, this seemed a gratuitous gesture. The nutcracker then called his toy soldiers to arms, adn they danced in between the mice for a time, until everyone exited, leaving the Mouse King alone to battle our hero. The outcome was rather unclear, but it seemed to me the mouse ran the doll through wtih his sword and jubilantly left the stage. Clara, upon waking, found our hero alone, and they, too, jubilantly exited.

The music changed, a chorus impressively appeared in a house right trap-window, and a dozen women entered the stage, dressed as snowflakes, and danced as if synchronized swimming, all still in Clara’s living room. A cleverer director would have dropped a skrim or even a curtain in front of the Christmas tree and curtains to make it clear that this is a scene change, rather than leave it so ambiguously. Had I not known the plot, I would have been very confused, wondering why all of a sudden a dozen snowflakes appeared in Clara’s living room.

Act two was more of the same. A few highlights: the dance (the trepak) typically performaned by Russian dancers was instead danced a la Ukraine, to wild applause. These dancers were excellent, their consumes obviously wonderful. This was, in my opinion, the highlight of the entire ballet.

There was no Sugar Plum Fairy. Instead, Clara danced her ballad (painstakingly at about half the speed– listening ot the melody so stretched out and wrung dry was its own torture. Much like water boarding, at first it seems but an annoyance, but after three minutes you would give your left foot to have it finally end).

The absense of the Sugar Plum Fairy and other characters (including my favorite, Mother Ginger and her children) carried the confusion of the first act into the second. All of a sudden the curtain lifted upon a host of strangely dressed dancers posing before a scrim decorated with a generic Christmas print that looked like it belonged on wrapping paper. Each dancer had his three minutes of fame before Clara and the nutcracker appeared. They soloed, had a cute pas de deux, soloed again, and then danced with some other men. There was no meaning to their choreography, no retelling of their tale (which I could have used to get my facts straight). Finally, the whole company did a few turns, and Clara somehow ended up alone, in her living room (after a pause for a scene change), holding a DOLL which I had never seen before but which looked very much like a toy nutcracker.

It was all very confusing, and quite unimpressive.

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