What do we collectively know about The Nutcracker? After the premiere of George Balanchine's version in 1954 at the New York City Ballet, the piece became the default rite of passage for the holiday season. We know that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's music is celebrated as an autonomous masterpiece, that the ballet paints wonderfully strong and abstract images--mice, nutcrackers, toy soldiers, candy canes--all coming to life. We know the production is an enormous source of income for many companies, including our own Oregon Ballet Theatre. We know that last year, OBT's artistic director, Christopher Stowell, chose to return to the Balanchine version of the ballet--its only performance on the West Coast--abandoning the more modern version of his predecessor. So, there, the obligatory background is covered!
These things are important, certainly, but they're not why I wanted to review The Nutcracker. I didn't want to look at it in reference to last year, or in a historical context, or at specific choices that make this particular production unique. Rather, I went because I haven't been since grade school, and I wanted to see if the distinct images that have adhered to my mind would resonate again.
I remember most vividly a sense of departure--that I was going into a new, strange, beautiful world. And danger, I distinctly remember danger. Those mice, engaged in a desperate and beautiful struggle with children's toys, seemingly innocent until called upon for expanded duty. Then to a flurry of images, contrasting everything that was seen prior.
Yes, I was a child, and yes, these images were completely new--the commercialization and parodic potential of them not yet on my radar screen--but I decided here in 2004 to try approaching The Nutcracker with the same expectations. I wanted to be drawn into a child's perspective of Christmas, the kind of feeling that accompanies first snowfall. But awestruck I wasn't.
The underwhelming loudness of the orchestra--a common Keller complaint--kept the music at a distance, the enthusiasm on the stage often seemed muted, and the battle between Mouse King and Nutcracker was so G-rated that it merited no invested response from children nearby (are we so afraid to upset children that we choose not to engage them?).
Highlights were speckled throughout, however, including an absolutely gorgeous transition into winter forest, a demanding and confident Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier, as well as a complex and fun characterization of Fritz. Unfortunately, these moments did not merit the sort of departure for which I had hoped. And I was not alone; the unanimous response from those I spoke to afterward took the form of, "Yep, that was The Nutcracker...."
Were my expectations too high? Should I have been focused more on the technical? Possibly. But isn't the joy of The Nutcracker the event of the thing? It's the event that makes the evening exciting--harnessing, enhancing and abstracting the full spirit of the season. I hope OBT can achieve this in the future, for children, adults and the cast alike.
Oregon Ballet Theatre at the Keller Auditorium, 222 SW Clay St., 222-5538. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, Dec. 15-18, and Monday-Thursday, Dec. 20-23. Also 2 pm Dec. 18 and 24, 1 and 5 pm Dec. 19. $12-$92+ advance.