A Crisp Nutcracker

“The Nutcracker”
Hamburg Ballet – John Neumeier
Hamburg State Opera
Hamburg, Germany
December 19, 2013

by Ilona Landgraf
Copyright © 2013 by Ilona Landgraf

John Neumeier’s “Nutcracker” is free of any association with Christmas. This Hamburg production, like John Cranko’s earlier version for Stuttgart, converts the winter-holiday fairytale for children into a ballet for all seasons. Substantial content has been added, and watching it becomes a pleasure for adults, too. Christmas or not, this Neumeier has become a much loved classic during Hamburg’s winter season.

As starting point there is the celebration of the 12th birthday of the ballet’s protagonist, Marie. The party is in full swing already when the quirky Drosselmeier arrives. He is ballet master of the court theater where Marie’s older sister, Louise, dances. Drosselmeier’s present to the birthday girl is a pair of pointe shoes, which fuel her dreams of dancing as beautifully as Louise. Another present, a wooden Nutcracker who becomes Marie’s companion throughout the rest of the story, is given to her by the smart cadet, Günther. Needless to say, he becomes the young girl’s infatuation. When all the party guests have departed, Marie returns to the parlor to take another look at her Nutcracker and falls asleep. She dreams that Drosselmeier introduces her into the court theater, showing her rehearsals for a ballet and for various divertissements. Marie, fascinated, becomes involved and even dances a pas de deux on pointe with Günther. There’s a grand climax but then, woken by her mother, Marie finds herself back in the parlor.

Despite being forty years old – the premiere took place in 1974 – this “Nutcracker” stands out from all other versions for many reasons. Foremost, Neumeier is a highly gifted storyteller. Not only is the piece very entertaining but it has, subtly, a deeper meaning: a young girl’s fragile transition from childhood to adolescence. Structurally, only the divertissements are kept from the original Russian version of 1892. The piece is Neumeier’s homage to the originator of “Nutcracker”, Marius Petipa who is portrayed as Drosselmeier. Actually, the characterization is peppered up. This Drosselmeier is a theatrical oddball.

Also, Neumeier’s choreography is thoroughly well-made and apt. Convincing, too, is the libretto which pays attention to the minutest detail. Multiple things happen, often simultaneously, but nothing ever becomes confusing or tedious. To catch everything, one has to watch the piece several times.

Finally – a reason I very much appreciate personally – there are the set and costume designs by Jürgen Rose. When the backdrop is raised in Marie’s dream, for example, it reveals the court theater’s well-lit and all-white ballet room. This place where ballerinas exercise at the barre is like a revelation, a realm of clarity and perfect order. Among the ravishing costumes are: the gorgeous gown of Marie’s mother; the dead-smart, large checkered pants of two party guests; and the glittery finery of the Chinese Bird divertissment dancer. Also the lavishly gold braided coats of the cadets certainly are a unique variant of the tailor’s art. I’m sure that nobody in the audience from the fifth row back noticed the beautiful embroidery of the girls’ white skirts in one divertissement. That’s typical for Rose. He always goes for quality. Reputedly, he personally selects even the fabric for the fourth underskirt.

Marie – the evening’s central character – was danced by English National Ballet’s Alina Cojocaru, a very welcome guest in Hamburg. As a twelve year old, Cojocaru portrayed most sensitively the fluctuations between childishness and the desire of being like a grown up. She is a top ballerina with a heavenly technique and also an excellent actor. Charmingly natural, she never pushed herself to the fore but was humble throughout, from start to final curtain call. Seing her dance was sheer pleasure!

Alexandre Riabko was the odd bird Drosselmeier. A bit wan at the beginning, he lacked stage presence and didn’t make much of an entrance arriving at the party. Becoming stronger, he was self-assured and kindly in introducing Marie to his world – the theater – in which he was happy as a lark. A veritable Cerberus of a ballet master, he tolerated no blunder whatsoever by any of his dancers, even making one girl weep.

Impressive as Günther, the cadet, was Alexandr Trusch. Just promoted to principal dancer status, Trusch not only exuded a kind aura but also radiated sovereign calm, was well-balanced and remarkably present. His supple jumps looked effortless. He and Cojocaru were very well matched in their pas de deux, which was the evening’s energetic pinnacle. The two danced as if walking on air.

Carolina Agüero as Louise was a likeable sister with the self-assurance of being the older one. As court theater ballerina, she had internalized classical ballet’s etiquette, yet sometimes was slightly stiff and lacked Marie’s vivid approach to dance. The flaws Agüero made in her Grand Pas de Deux with Trusch were few and negligible.

Highly entertaining was the initial birthday party, which gave us plenty to watch. The lady of the house, affectionate Ms. Consul Stahlbaum (Anna Polikarpova), hovered elegantly among the many guests, radiating irresistible charm. Meanwhile, her husband (Dario Franconi) proved to be such a bookworm that he even failed to look up from his reading when the party was at its liveliest. One aunt (Kristína Borbélyová) got tipsy; ironically she was the wife of a dignified, gray-haired general (Eduardo Bertini). She almost toppled from the chaise lounge on which she sat. Another aunt (Ekaterina Mamrenko) annoyed Drosselmeier by clinging to his coat-tails. His pride was so hurt, however, by being mocked by the young cadets that he came close to leaving the party. Yet, despite being prima donna-ish and sulking easily, the ballet master knew how to assert himself. When the cadets grouped for a photo, Drosselmeier swiftly and suddenly, at the last moment, jumped in front of the camera to steal the show. In between incidents, he demonstrated his skills for Marie and all his female admirers. All the hustle and bustle of friends, grandmother, grandfather and other relatives was observed with stoic calm by the elderly housekeeper (Ann Drower) and a doddery servant (Orkan Dann), who put the sofa cushions in order again.

The second act’s divertissements were rich in variety. They put one in high spirits, like a cheerfully sparkling array of desserts. Leslie Heylmann’s feverish Spanish woman spiced up “The Beauty of Granada”, Hélène Bouchet and Carsten Jung’s stately “La Fille du Pharaon” had an elegant dignity and remained pretty cool despite the unruly tutu Bouchet wore. Yuka Oishi was irresistibly sweet in her short, crisp “Chinese Bird” and the three snappy “Dancing Lieutenants” (Konstantin Tselikov, Emanuel Amuchástegui and Aleix Martínez) knew how to look imposing – and were rousing! This exceptional ensemble was still another ace Neumeier had up his sleeve.

Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Simon Hewett, played Tchaikovsky with spirit and made for a well-rounded experience.


Links: Hamburg Ballet’s Homepage
Photos: (No photos have been provided by Hamburg Ballet.)
Editing: George Jackson