Berlin’s New “Nutcracker” – No Cracker Jack!

“The Nutcracker”
State Ballet Berlin
Deutsche Oper Berlin
Berlin, Germany
October 25, 2013

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2013 by Ilona Landgraf

1. Nikolai Petrak, Michael Banzhaf and Sabrina Salvia Gaglio, The Nutcracker, State Ballet BerlinDespite the amazingly mild weather so far, State Ballet Berlin’s premiere of its new “Nutcracker” heralded an early start for this year’s Christmas season. Vladimir Malakhov, in his last year as artistic director of the company, decided to replace Patrice Bart’s production – which had been in repertory from 1999 until two years ago – with one based on St. Petersburg’s 1892 original. Entrusted with the choreography were Russia’s Yuri Burlaka and Vasily Medvedev, both familiar with their homeland’s ballet tradition. Neither of them is unknown in Berlin, having staged an adaption of “La Esmeralda” for the State Ballet in 2011.

A huge spectacle, more splendid, more fairytale-like and magical than ever – those were the superlatives with which Malakhov advertised this “Nutcracker”. Was it to be his proud parting gift (and certainly no cheap one) after his more than ten years tenure?

The program booklet with the cast list and plot synopsis was an early warning of how little care had been taken on the staging as a whole. I’ve never seen a synopsis with so many mistakes. Errors in grammar, spelling and fact, and writing in a German-for-beginners manner.
2. Ensemble, The Nutcracker, State Ballet BerlinThe scenario by Burlaka and Medvedev is based on Marius Petipa’s creation for the Imperial Russian Ballet, today’s Maryinsky Ballet. To reconstruct the original dances, the two Russians examined Vladimir I. Stepanov’s notations of Lev Ivanov’s choreography, which are preserved at Harvard University. However, the snag is that Stepanov recorded only the big, complex group dances and poses. Missing are transitions and other crucial specifics. Much had to be invented anew! Even so, the current “Nutcracker” suffers from the same weaknesses for which the original was criticized over 120 years ago. While the first act – Christmas eve at the Silberhaus family’s home – is dominated by action interspersed with a few group dances, the second act is basically one long divertissement at the dream castle, the Konfitürenburg. On top of this imbalance, the scenario lacks conclusiveness: in the finale of this “Nutcracker”, Clara and her Prince Coqueluche stay at the Konfitürenburg and her dream continues. The ballet falls apart into two dissimilar pieces. In other versions (Peter Wright’s close-to-original production for London’s Royal Ballet, for example, or in John Neumeier’s adaption), the two acts have a content connection: Clara finally wakens from her dream, just as in E.T.A.Hoffmann’s fairytale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”.

The centerpieces of the current production are the original costumes and stage designs, which were entrusted to staff members of the Maryinsky Theatre. Of Andrei Voytenko’s sets, which follow the historical record, I liked most the unpretentious snowy winter forest for the waltz of the Snowflakes. About the Silberhaus’ living room, I concur with what Alexandre Benois wrote following the 1892 premiere. Benois was reminded of the salon of a newly rich banker, a parvenu of the “Friedrichstraße” sort. The Christmas tree was partially hidden behind a curtain and I didn’t see it grow at all. The Konfitürenburg scenery was a color horror.

3. Ensemble, Waltz of the Snowflakes, The Nutcracker, State Ballet BerlinAssigned to reconstruct what the characters wore was Tatiana Noginova, the Maryinsky Theatre’s chief costume designer. Her recreations are based on old photos and the almost complete collection of figurines drawn by Ivan Vsevolojsky, director of the Imperial Russian Theatre back then. Adaptions were made because of the dancers’ different body type today and to meet current requirements of technique. However, the results do not exude grandeur and splendor. Instead, the costumes look rather cheap and tasteless – an impression intensified by too much makeup on many faces. What should have been an atmospheric Christmas eve party resembles a common carnival. Surely, this wasn’t what used to be made for Russia’s Imperial Theatre! Also the props showed that this production team lacked taste and sense in dealing with the dance heritage. Certainly the big pieces of cheese and cake the mice get hold of have to be lightweight, but is it necessary to make it obvious to everyone in the stalls that they are plastic? Why is the trumpet, Fritz’s Christmas present, not real? Even the Nutcracker, an awful exemplar of its kind with a big head and a bright grin, looks suspiciously plastic and, to top it all off, it is merely a puppet unable to crack anything at all!

Similarly insensitive was the lighting. While we watched snow flakes fluttering in front of the illuminated curtain during the first act’s overture, for the second act’s overture we were served less entertainment: three motionless and catchy white spotlights lit the red cloth. Also misused was the light dimmer. At the end of the Christmas party one could count to three and suddenly it’s darkest night. When Clara and Prince Coqueluche arrive at the Konfitürenburg, the lighting goes from zero to full as if a switch had been flipped. Was the intent to blind the onlookers?

As in the Maryinsky’s historic “Nutcracker”, there were many children on stage – around sixty. All were pupils of the State Ballet School of Berlin. Charming as angels, they curved around each other and resembled cute putti. The highlight during the divertissements was the appearance of the six little girls, who hatched out of Mother Gigogne’s huge skirt. This half dozen enjoyed being on stage, they enjoyed dancing and the audience enjoyed them. Such naturalness I missed in the deportment of the other youngsters.

4. Iana Salenko, Marian Walter and ensemble, The Nutcracker, State Ballet BerlinThe child Clara was danced by Sabrina Salva Gaglio, a pupil of the Ballet School too. She has talent but also the tendency to be affected. Incongruously, her makeup and hairdo were those of a little lady. Why was she made to look older? This preempted her dream of becoming a young woman. Iana Salenko was the grown up Clara, who later is crowned Fée dragée. Salenko’s pas de deux with Marian Walter (as Nutcracker and Prince Coqueluche) radiated elegance and sublimity. This pair’s welcome qualities the corps de ballet all too often lacked. Lines were not clear and Berlin’s group dancing needed animation – something unthinkable in Stuttgart or Hamburg. In the dance for the Puppet Prince and Princess, the characteristic jerky movements hadn’t polish. Federico Spallitta, cock of the walk in the Danse orientale, lost his manly authority by having to struggle with balance. In the Golden Waltz, when the corps dances around a huge vase as if it were a maypole, I was afraid that the dancers holding onto the golden garlands would pull the vase off its base.

Drosselmayer – Michael Banzhaf – with his black eyepatch was probably a bit intimidating for children. He has a quite simple role. He waves his cape, does some magic tricks (the sort amateurs learn first) and accompanies Clara and the Prince to the Konfitürenburg. That’s not a lot to give this character any panache.

Is anything gained over already existing versions of “Nutcracker”? Is it of any importance, for example, that the Trepak in the second act is replaced by a Danse des bouffons? Adhering to the details of a tradition, remounting notated dances, is not necessarily identical with capturing a piece’s essence. Nor is nostalgia a criterion for calling something a classic.
The audience obviously wasn’t bothered by such considerations. It was enthralled. Marian Walter earned plenty of enthusiastic yells with every leap in his last solo. The final applause was all very proper. Well, if the audience is satisfied, everything must be fine, mustn’t it?

5. Martina Böckmann and ensemble, The Nutcracker, State Ballet Berlin

Links: State Ballet Berlin’s Homepage
Photos: 1. Nikolai Petrak (Fritz), Michael Banzhaf (Drosselmayer) and Sabrina Salvia Gaglio (Clara), “The Nutcracker” by Vasily Medvedev and Yuri Burlaka after Lev Ivanov, State Ballet Berlin 2013
2. Ensemble and Leonard Jakovina (Mouse King, in the background), “The Nutcracker” by Vasily Medvedev and Yuri Burlaka after Lev Ivanov, State Ballet Berlin 2013
3. Ensemble, Waltz of the Snowflakes, “The Nutcracker” by Vasily Medvedev and Yuri Burlaka after Lev Ivanov, State Ballet Berlin 2013
4. Iana Salenko (Clara, Fée dragée) and Marian Walter (Nutcracker, Prince Coqueluche), “The Nutcracker” by Vasily Medvedev and Yuri Burlaka after Lev Ivanov, State Ballet Berlin
5. Martina Böckmann (Queen, Mother of Prince Coqueluche) and ensemble, “The Nutcracker” by Vasily Medvedev and Yuri Burlaka after Lev Ivanov, State Ballet Berlin 2013
all photos © Bettina Stöß 2013
Editing: George Jackson
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[…] this Nutcracker is certainly not a “reconstruction.” As critic Ilona Landgraf explains about the surviving notation of The Nutcracker’s […]