The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker cracks me up. This family hosts a party at which the children are paraded about as entertainment; then a creepy looking godfather arrives with a little boy and presents Clara (or Marie, if you’re watching NYC Ballet’s version) with a Nutcracker doll. She falls asleep in the living room and has what, if she weren’t five, seems like an LSD-induced dream in which the creepy godfather spooks her, mice try to attack her but toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker come to life, defeat the rodent army and then she and the Nutcracker (the little boy who came with the godfather) take off on a journey to Candy Land, complete with dancing candy canes and hot chocolate. It’s really kind of nutty but the lovely and memorable music and impressive dancing makes George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker a nice wintry treat.

I saw The Nutcracker this year having different expectations than last. Last year, I was seeing The Nutcracker performed professionally and in whole for the first time. Growing up, I’d seen local productions or bits and pieces of local professional productions but never the whole show so I was particularly looking forward to seeing NYC Ballet’s version. I sat through the first act waiting for it to get good but it wasn’t until the end of the act that it held my interest. The second act was livelier and had more of the well-known music – and it didn’t involve mice. So this year, I put on a new dress (always fun) and headed over to Lincoln Center knowing it would be packed with families and that I’d be rolling my eyes through most of the first act. Expectations are everything because this year I had a much better experience than last.

Lincoln Center is still under renovation, but the fountain is fully restored and the view greeting you as you walk up to the plaza is breathtaking. The fountain is illuminated and very pretty; behind it is the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (where South Pacific plays) with its several stories, glass windows and a tastefully decorated Christmas tree on the third or fourth level; to the right is the newly renovated Alice Tully Hall, which boasts a glass-walled café on the main level and a nice sitting area in front; to the left of the fountain is the David H. Koch Theatre, formerly known as the State Theatre, which is where NYC Ballet performances are held. There’s nothing new about the façade, but inside I noticed changes right away.

There are a couple of subtle but new art structures on the walls of the main lobby; I really only noticed these because the last time I was at the ballet, in June, they were still renovating and the construction materials were left out in plain view. Their absence was pleasantly noted. Making my way up to the fourth ring, I noticed that the signs for the different sections of the house were new – glass signs with the level etched in, lit up for easy viewing. I finally made it up to the fourth ring and slipped inside the bathroom to find that it, too, had been made over. Nothing too extravagant here, but everything was new. I was a little disappointed to see that the coat hooks near the door were gone – they came in handy when it came time to wash your hands; rather than juggling your coat, scarf and purse while soaping up, you could hang your coat up; but alas, this time I juggled. The new bathrooms did have one of those cool Dyson drying machines – you know, the kind that you stick your hands in to and then slowly pull them out to find them dry after only a few seconds. Very cool. After the trip to the loo, I finally headed inside to my seat. The seats, I found, had been redone, as well. The chair backs are higher and sleeker looking and each seat had been reupholstered. They feel different, too. I felt like I was sitting up higher and straighter. This was fine, but the armrest seemed a little low; I had to lean down to rest my arm, rather than before when I could sit up straight and let my arms fall comfortably on to the armrest. This wasn’t, and isn’t, a very big deal but something I noticed, nonetheless. In the program, it is noted that the new seats provide better acoustics and I have to say I agree. I’m neither a sound technician nor an audiophile, but I heard certain instruments way up in the fourth ring as clearly and vibrantly as if they were being played right next to me. I consider this to be a nice little upgrade and am looking forward to hearing the terrific musicians with greater clarity this upcoming winter season.

As soon as I took my seat, the performance began. Actually, I should say the pre-show began. One of the things I love most about going to the theatre is the floor show taking place before the curtain goes up. We get all kinds at the theatre and I thrill at providing Joan Rivers-style commentary in my mind. Many people are dressed appropriately, albeit sometimes in outfits I don’t care for, but too many people neglect to step it up for the occasion. Theatre-goers take note: You do not wear jeans to a Broadway show or the Ballet, particularly on a Saturday night. If you find yourself at a Broadway show on, say, a Tuesday evening or a Wednesday matinee, or at an off-Broadway show on any day of the week, it may be acceptable to wear nice jeans. Nice jeans means a dark wash, good, tailored fit (nothing hanging off your bums,) no rips and, for goodness sakes, no acid wash. (Really, though, no acid wash ever. Ever.) And those jeans should be topped by a dressy casual blouse, an oxford or a sweater, not a T-shirt. And definitely no sneakers. Put on a real pair of shoes. If I, with a double wide foot, can find appropriate shoes to wear, so can you. (There are some exceptions to these rules; if you’re going to see a hip, rock and roll musical, like Hair, maybe you can wear nice jeans on a Friday night. Or, if you’re dreamy like Matthew Morrison, you can go see Hair and wear a black suit, sans tie, with clean Converse. But to be safe, stick to the rules.) Anyway, my point in detailing these rules is to lament the fact that several people in attendance did not follow them. They looked like they came in off the streets after a day of touring. And maybe they did. But knowing you’re going to the ballet at Lincoln Center at the end of your day of touring, couldn’t you just as easily have worn a pair of black pants instead of jeans? All I’m saying is plan ahead and don’t come to the theatre looking like a ragamuffin.

Finally, at a few minutes past eight, the curtain rose and The Nutcracker began. As I said before, I don’t really care for the first act, but knowing I wasn’t going to love it helped me enjoy it more. Instead of watching the action on stage, I concentrated on the beautiful music playing and tried to catch a glimpse the musicians in the pit. The end of act one is actually quite lovely, though. Marie and the Prince are en route to the Land of Sweets and are guided by dancing snowflakes. The dance was very well executed except for a soloist dancer who seemed to have trouble coming out of her turns. “Snowflakes” were blown out onto the stage so the dancers were really dancing in a winter wonderland and you could see the tracings of their graceful steps in the snow as they fluttered about.

The second act is a lot of fun. Marie and the Prince are sitting on a throne in the Land of Sweets and are entertained by all sorts of delectable treats. You know all the music – it’s in every holiday themed movie and commercial, which makes for an interesting dichotomy. As I was sitting in the State Theatre watching the candy canes literally jump through hoops, I was picturing Kevin McAllister’s mom running through the airport because she just realized she left Kevin home alone. (Slap hands to cheeks and shout “ahhh!” here.) That digression aside, the sweets’ dances are both exciting and pretty. Ashley Bouder gave a rapturous performance as the Dewdrop, leading a corps of flowers in a light but lovely dance. The most impressive dessert, of course, is the pas de deux between the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier. The Sugarplum Fairy was played by Sara Mearns, a relatively new principal dancer. (She became a principal dancer in 2008.) She does a good job but doesn’t quite have that “it” to fully captivate you. Jonathan Stafford is graceful, elegant and a thrill to watch on stage. As the Cavalier, he was sensational. As he leapt in circles across the stage it looked like he was floating on air. Unfortunately, their dance, and the entire second act in general, was over much too quickly. Before long Marie and the Prince more or less flew off into the sunset, leaving the dancing sweets behind. George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is a holiday season delight and with its child-friendly story offers a perfect opportunity to introduce youngsters to ballet.