We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Dawn Gierling Milatin and Johnny Almeida in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker  (photo by Travis Magee)
The ballet by Tchaikovsky presented around town every holiday season has an interesting history. The original source is a story by E.T.A Hoffman entitled "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King"; Alexander Dumas père adapted it as "The Tale of the Nutcracker". When Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write an opera and a ballet for the Imperial Theater in St. Petersburg, he chose the Dumas tale to pair with his final opera Iolanta (which we recently saw at the Met with Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala). What a strange double bill that must have been!

Dumas' story had to be pared down. Marius Petipa was the original choreographer and at some point Lev Ivanov took over. They knew exactly what they wanted musically and Tchaikovsky delivered. It premiered in 1892 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater. Although the music was beloved right from the start, the choreography was widely criticized.

Many choreographers have set the ballet since then but we are partial to the once created by Michael Chernov of the Gelsey Kirkland Ballet, of which he and Ms. Kirkland are Co-Artistic Directors. We have always found the New York City Ballet version, choreographed by Balanchine, to be somewhat tedious. The one we saw last night thrilled us and held our attention for a solid two hours. We first saw it last holiday season and couldn't wait for a second viewing.

What made it special was not just the choreography and the dancing, but the intimacy. The company has found a new home in Dumbo and the comfortable seating with great sight lines permits the audience to feel involved in the heroine's family life. In this time period when we are best by chaos, fear, and anger, it was a special treat to be transported to a kinder, gentler world.

Mr. Chernov's version opens with the introduction of the members of Clara's family. Clara (Dawn Geirling Militan) is clearly a "good girl" and gets positive attention while her brother Fritz (Koki Yamaguchi) is naughty and jealous. Several charming details were created to get this across including a scene with the lamplighter. Fritz can be sulky and competitive. But how that boy can dance!

The family is having a Xmas party and the guests have dressed up for the occasion. The parents drink toasts, socialize, and dance with elegance.  Meanwhile, the children open their gifts--mostly dolls for the girls and tin horns and toy rifles for the boys. They play as children will. The boys are rambunctious and Fritz manages to annoy his grandparents (Alexandra Lawler and Samuel Humphreys) by tooting his horn. Frau Stahlbaum (Katrina Crawford) feels faint and is tenderly given smelling salts. Herr Stahlbaum (Simon Xu) is a gracious host.

Family friend and children's godfather Drosselmeyer (dance instructor Akop Akopian) arrives with a magic show--a large clock with figures that emerge and dance -- Columbine (Nina Yoshida) and Harlequin (Erez Milatin) as well as a Death figure, representing Mortal Time (Keisuke Nishkawa). The dancing is exciting, but made even more so by the dramatic background and the enchantment of the children by this "magic".

Clara is presented with a special gift, a nutcracker, which Fritz promptly breaks.  The kindly Drosselmeyer, obviously enchanted by Clara, fixes it for her and bandages the wound with a scarf.

After the guests leave and the toys are put away, Clara falls asleep under the tree with her special gift.

Utilizing what psychiatrists call the "day residue"--events from the day before that infiltrate and inspire the dream world--Clara's unconscious weaves a dream.  She is surrounded by some pretty scary mice but the nutcracker comes to life to defend her, utilizing an army of toy soldiers left in the cabinet.

He becomes a prince (Johnny Almeida) who takes her to a magical kingdom. This is the part in which we hear all the famous music Tchaikovsky composed--the very music that so greatly affected us when we were little and got us interested in classical music. Unfortunately, the price one pays for the intimacy of the production is the use of recorded music instead of the full orchestra which one would enjoy in a larger house. We were more than willing to pay that price!

Although the music is a suite and generally arranged according to the choreographer's intention, we are always happy to hear the Spanish Dance, the Chinese Dance, the Russian Dance (Trepak), and the Arabian Dance. These character dances were a delight to behold.

The Waltz of the Flowers and the Dance of the Reed Flutes were beautifully choreographed, as was the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy with its use of celesta and bass clarinet, lovely even on recording.

The corps danced magnificently and, being so perfectly in unison, gave evidence of rigorous rehearsal. In the Snowflake scene (choreographed by Vasili Vainonen and staged by Lyubov Fominich) the women floated like snowflakes.  Our only criticism is that they landed heavily and loudly, which may have been the fault of the floor.

As the lead couple, Ms. Militan and Mr. Almeida made a perfect couple. The choreography included several adagios and some challenging variations, all performed with precision and artistry. Ms. Militan is not only graceful and strongly centered but she is a superb actress. We were ready to believe that she was about 14 years old and fantasizing about her first love. Mr. Almeida was a reliable partner as well as a superb and technically accomplished soloist. There were all the classical moves and lifts that we love and miss in contemporary choreography.

There were so many special moments but we particularly enjoyed the corps of angels who glided smoothly across the floor, looking much like Russian icons.

The Costume and Set Design was adapted by Michael Chernov and we know not from what they were adapted by they were by all accounts splendid, particularly the costumes for the party scene and those for the character dancers.

It was indeed an incomparable evening, and well worth the trip to Brooklyn. There will be five more performances, one today and four next week--December 17, 18, 19, and 20. Although children will love it, you will not need a child accompanying you to enjoy this one.

(c) meche kroop

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