Seems like Boston Ballet has been going on about their all-new Nutcracker for over a year. I vaguely remember hype last year that it was the final opportunity to see that production. The ads for the new production went up months ago and plastered every bus, train, streetcorner. Their website had links all over it to sketches of new costumes and the like. The e-mails and print mail have been flying fast and furious. This is clearly a Big Deal in BB-land.

And rightly so. I’m not sure exactly how old the last production was, but I think it was around a few decades and the costumes had last been redone in the ’90s sometime. They’ve since moved theatres a couple times; the Wang kicked them out a few years ago so they had to pack up and move to an interim location, then finally made their home at the Boston Opera House which is a great setting, but because of differences in the size of the stage the magical growing Christmas tree was limited in how much it could grow and the 1840s-era hoop skirts took up a lot more of the stage, so it was time for a refresher.

To the tune of $2 million.

New costumes, new sets, new choreography.

Regular readers will know that the Nutcracker is not exactly my favorite ballet, but I’ll hand it to BB… whoever does their marketing deserves a raise, because I was totally convinced I had to see this.

Of course I almost missed the boat with my procrastinative (is that a word? it should be) nature, but I finally ordered some cheap (ha!) seats for the second-to-last show of the season.

So off to the Hub of the Universe went Tea buddy and I. Got into town with plenty of time to spare, picked up the tickets at the will-call and headed round the corner for a hot chocolate to counteract the slush falling from the sky. Back to the Opera House and into the sea of humanity. As we turned the corner into the main lobby we could see up the stairs to the mezzanine where there were photo ops with the bear and the bunny. There were also tables with paper Nutcracker crowns… what is this, Burger King? Up the stairs to the mezzanine. And, score!, spotted one of my coworkers moonlighting as a bartender. Champagne? Yes, please! Can I have the whole bottle? (Gah, why am I so damned cynical about Nut? Must stop.) Up to the nosebleeds we went. Actually the seats weren’t too bad… off to the left side of the mezzanine, so couldn’t see the wings stage right and the dancers looked like ants, but the view was better than I was expecting.

The house was quite packed, surprising for nearly a week after Christmas and on a snowy night, but again… pretty sure that marketing person deserves a raise.

Lights down and… prologue. Street scene. Clara wandering down the street unattended hanging out with the local beggar children. Riiiiight. Seems plausible. Street sweeper comes by, chestnut roaster, and then the center scenery rises up to reveal Drosselmeyer’s workshop and the beggar children and Clara gather around to watch him perform some magic and some obvious foreshadowing. Rabbit in a hat (rabbit was hilarious, btw), Nutcracker and rat battle, etc. Pretty sure I saw Clara put her arm around a beggar child. Do her parents know where she is?!?!

Onto the party scene. As usual, I feel like I miss most of what’s going on, because there’s so much to watch. I did see the part where Clara gets pointe shoes as a gift when the other girls got dolls. Apparently historical accuracy wasn’t high on the list when revamping Nut… this version is supposedly set in the 1820s, yet pointe shoes didn’t come into existence the way we think of them until the late 19th century. Sigh.

Party, party, Drosselmeyer hits the scene fashionably late and with some rather frightening black hair. Yikes. The Harlequin doll dances. Ballerina doll dances (she was terrific), then the bear comes out. Dudes, why is the bear always so creepy? Blah. Then Nutcracker doll given, much rejoicing, Fritz is a jerk, breaks the doll, Drosselmeyer fixes Nut (how come no one ever sends Fritz to his room, that’s what I want to know!), party people leave, tra-la, tra-la.

Then the battle scene. Clara comes to retrieve her Nutcracker from the living room and the mice start jumping out. This was one of my favorite parts. At each chime of the clock the spotlight lit on another mouse. The mice were awesome and the costumes ROCKED. Of course, I don’t think you’re supposed to want to go cuddle the little rats, but who can resist? The transformation of the living room sort of took place and I must say, I miss the old version. Granted I saw it over 10 years ago, but I remember, even as an adult, feeling awed when the tree started to grow onstage. This tree basically broke in half to reveal a bigger tree behind it and that tree expanded later in the scene, but I didn’t feel the magic. Boo.

Battle scene was the typical chaos. I totally missed Clara killing the Mouse King and somehow missed Nutcracker turning into a prince. I was distracted by the mice. Oh, but the rabbit in the hat made his return in giant form during the battle. As did a life-sized gingerbread man. The gingerbread man annoyed me. He bumbled around stage looking lost. I kept expecting him to get eaten by the mice. Would’ve served him right.

Then, on to snow. The scenery for snow was amazing. Birch forest. The way the wings were done it looked like one giant forest. The reindeer came in pulling the sleigh. Cute reindeer. There was some girl dancing along with them in a tutu, not the Snow Queen. Based on the program I assume she was the lead reindeer? Not sure. She didn’t look at all like a reindeer, but process of elimination leads me to believe… Snow Queen and King dance around, flakes come in and dance around. Only 10 flakes. I expected there to be more. Snow Queen’s costume was gorgeous — the tutu was snowflake-shaped. Want!

But then… oh then… a giant blue meatball descended from the sky and Clara and the Nutcracker prince hopped on and floated away. Okay, obviously it wasn’t supposed to be a meatball. I assume it was a cloud? Or a snowball? A UFO? Whatever it was Tea and I started giggling uncontrollably (and we honestly did not drink an entire bottle of champagne prior to the show, so I can’t blame it on that!). It looked absolutely freakin’ ridiculous. And that’s how the scene closed. Oh… oh my.


Then second act.

No Angel scene to open it (thank goodness… I hate the angel scene… nothing against angels, it’s just blah for the most part, unless it’s the NYCB version). This one opens in the Nutcracker Prince’s Kingdom (as opposed to the Land of the Sweets) with pages (more amazing costumes!) and Sugar Plum Fairy attendants — all of whom are BBS students. The leads of all the divertissements and the flowers all come out on stage and the Nutcracker tells them the story of how he got saved by Clara. There was much rejoicing. Drosselmeyer pops up again (such a creep, that Drosselmeyer!) and he and Clara go to the back to watch the dances.

First up, Spanish. It was fine. Can’t think of anything too remarkable on this one.

Then Arabian, otherwise known as, the Dance of Misogyny. Or the Dance of Racial Stereotypes (or is that Chinese? hm). Yeah, so the male dancer comes out first and does a few steps, heads stage right and then claps — yes, CLAPS! — two distinct claps, to apparently signal, “Come here, woman!” and the female dancer comes out. The dancing itself was gorgeous. The female lead wasn’t on pointe, which surprised me, but she was extraordinarily flexible and they did some cool stuff. The audience adored it. But seriously. Clapping to command your woman who then wanders out and acts all subservient? We didn’t need to take everything back to the 1820s, did we? Argh.

Then Chinese. Pretty benign except for the damned index finger-pointing. I have a coworker who has done traditional Chinese dancing. I’m going to have to ask her if anyone in that country dances with their index fingers raised. Gah.

Then… Pastorale. Pastorale? What the hell? Ah… Marzipan (if we were in the land of the sweets, which we’re not) or the Danish shepherdesses. Apparently, Denmark is not deserving of mention, so they are calling this Pastorale. This was a pas de trois but there were two shepherdesses in the back and… sheep. Five white sheep and… a black sheep. Oh my. Seriously, kick the pas de trois people out, because I really don’t care. I am watching the trés adorable sheep. Especially that black one who was always (purposely) two steps behind. Too cute. Oh, but when I could tear my eyes away from the sheep I noticed that the two women in the pas de trois were wearing tights in two different shades of pink. I know this is stupidly nit-picky, but really? All this money spent on new costumes and you can’t get them to all wear the same color tights? So distracting.

Next up, Mother Ginger and the polichinelles (they weren’t actually called anything in the program, but I’m going with polichinelles). More adorable kids. Clara and Drosselmeyer came down to dance with them which seemed… random. Wasn’t too keen on that, although Drosselmeyer did dance with Mother Ginger which was pretty hilarious.

Then Russian. This has always been one of my favorite dances when it’s done as Russian (as opposed to Candy Canes), in part because it highlights the men and the jumping. It’s just so… lively! The three guys in this piece did not disappoint. The audience roared at the end of this one. Must’ve been the coffee grinders at the end (“it gets the people GOIN’!”).

Then Waltz of the Flowers with Dew Drop and two lead flowers and 10 regular flowers. Dew Drop was quite… sparkly. The lead flowers and regular flowers had pretty much the same costumes, with just a little sparkle on the lead bodices. The flower skirts were absolutely beautiful, but the bodices could’ve used a little more… pink? Brown? Yellow? I dunno, it needed some sort of color because from where I was it looked like the waltz of the topless flowers. The bodice color was way too nude. Eek. Nice dance, though.

Then the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince did the grand pas de deux. Very nice… although both Tea and I noticed that Sugar Plum’s tights were gaudy pink. I don’t think that was intentional. Ugh… again, it’s one thing to invest all this money in costumes, but if you let the simple stuff lag, like tights, I just don’t know…

Anyway, everyone comes back on for the final piece, the Sugar Plum Fairy heads off in her carriage, curtain closes. Then we see Clara back on her couch with the Nutcracker doll… as she sleeps various leads from the Nutcracker Prince’s Kingdom walk past her couch before she awakens, wondering if it’s all a dream and then notices the crown still on her head.

All in all not an objectionable evening, yet I walked away feeling a little… disappointed? I don’t know. I realize that the Nutcracker is a really dippy ballet and anyone who wants to produce it has to work within the goofiness and make the best of it. I sympathize. But all the money that went in to doing this, I was expecting something a little more magical, something to melt my cynical heart. Honestly I didn’t go in feeling crabby or anything, I was truly excited to see it, but I kind of felt like the bigger budget didn’t do much to make it supremely more special than the one our little non-pro company put on a couple weeks ago.

There were some great things, of course. The sets were truly spectacular. And some of the costumes blew me away. Not the ones they probably meant for me to love (Snow Queen, Dew Drop, Sugar Plum), but the mice and the pages and the polichinelles… and the sheep! I also loved that the ballet included so many BBS students and not just the little ones. I always associate children’s Nut roles with the young kids — party children, polichinelles, etc. But this one had older girls en pointe and I thought that this was a great way to highlight some of their talented students. Honestly, if I hadn’t known from the program that these were students I wouldn’t have realized it from their dancing alone. They did a great job.

But there was some stuff that just felt incredibly half-assed. Like the fact that there was no playbill. It was just a paper casting list which was vastly uninformative. I’m sorry, you want to use this as the springboard to get people in the seats for the regular shows? Give them a playbill with the pictures of the company members and the blurb of history and a synopsis of the story and some information about what it takes to put on a show of this size. You’ve got a captive audience, tell them something about yourself that will inspire them to return soon!

And while we’re at it, is it that difficult to tell us who is dancing some of these roles? There were a heck of a lot of “Artists of Boston Ballet” or “Students of Boston Ballet School” next to the roles. I guess listing all of the names would make the program too long, but could they at least have a section listing the names of the “Artists” and “Students” so we know who these people are who are dancing so beautifully for us? I know that the Nut is pretty much down-time for the principals and soloists and the corps members really do the bulk of the work. Can they get a little recognition?

The choreography was a little lackluster at parts. There were some great dances, of course (Arabian, much as I hated the beginning; Russian). But there were also scenes where I was thinking, “Really, echappé, passé, echappé, passé says “Snowflakes” to you? Because it says “Beginner Pointe Class” to me! I mean… I guess I understand that Nut season is way longer than any other show run and the audience isn’t exactly made up of vast hordes of balletophiles, so why kill your dancers with ridiculously complex choreography when there are more important gigs coming up. But…

I don’t know. Nut is the bread-and-butter of the season, for better or worse, and it keeps the company afloat. They’ve had a remarkable season in terms of revenues and the reviews I’ve read have all been glowing, so it seems they’re doing everything right. But, much as I love BB, it rubs me the wrong way that they charge nearly twice the amount for tickets and give you about half the effort as the other shows. I just felt a little cheated, somehow.

I am excited for the rest of BB’s season and look forward to seeing more of their shows. I think they’re terrific. I don’t blame them entirely for my disappointment. I still contend that Nutcracker is an entirely tired ballet… overdone, worn out, tough to make special… and Mikko Nissinen obviously worked hard to make the window-dressing look shiny and new, which was desperately needed and well-executed. Maybe my disappointment is simply that there really isn’t much else anyone can do to make the show better. It’s become the workhorse of American ballet companies, ballet for the masses. It’s a lovely tradition and a great way to introduce children to performing arts and I guess I need to just accept it for what it is and stop asking so much of it.

Sigh. Opining done (and I really did not mean for this to sound so gripe-y), I am now going to throw out a tiny thank you to whatever/whoever was looking out for me on the drive home last night. The weather was downright rotten and the plows seemed to only be working on the other side of the highway. I hit a spot of snow and the back end of my car started fishtailing and we went for a nice little cruise perpendicular to the flow of traffic. Thankfully my car stopped right on the side of the highway and no one hit me, was able to right myself and go back on my way (what a slow, arduous ride home!). Ah, what we do for our ballet fixes!


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