A Tale of Two Nutcrackers

Top: Balanchine's swirling snowstorm at NYCB (Paul Kolnik); bottom: Ratmansky's menacing snowflakes at ABT (Erin Baiano)

Ah, Nutcracker season. Sure, as a dancer it's pretty much a nightmare. But as an audience member—especially in dance-stuffed NYC—it's a dream come true. There are umpteen Nuts running in the Big Apple right now, and I can't get enough of them.

This weekend, I did a Nutcracker double-header, catching American Ballet Theatre's version (by Alexei Ratmansky) on Friday night and New York City Ballet's production (by George Balanchine) on Saturday. They both get the important things right: They create beautiful, enchanting worlds onstage; they include real challenges for incredible dancers; and, most importantly, they're magical. Listening to the reactions of the kids around me as the trees grew and the snow fell was, as always, half the fun.

But in a way, these two productions couldn't be more different.

I love Balanchine's first act because it lets children behave the way they actually behave. Outside of the formal party dances, he doesn't give the young'uns much dance-y choreography. Instead, they run and skip and stomp around in a way that looks totally authentic. His snow scene is wonderfully realistic, too: He creates swirling, sweeping patterns that mimic snow falling. (I also have to give a shout-out to Lauren Lovette, who danced a gorgeous, regal Sugar Plum on Saturday night.)

Ratmansky, on the other hand, shows us what childhood feels like, rather than what it looks like. His Clara does more dancing, but that dancing is a way of expressing her inner world. His heroine isn't the Sugar Plum Fairy: it's the grown-up Clara, who dances the traditional Sugar Plum pas with her grown-up Nutcracker Prince. And yet it's clear that this is the young Clara's imagining of herself as an adult, because her ballerina counterpart still dances young. Halfway through her solo, for example, she runs offstage—only to peek out at us playfully from the wings. Ratmansky's snowflakes, too, don't necessarily move the way snow moves. Instead, he makes them into characters, who initially befriend Clara and the Nutcracker Prince but later attack them in a blinding blizzard.

I usually have pretty strong opinions about dance performances, but when it comes to these two wonderful Nutcrackers, I can't pick a favorite. I'm just thankful they're both here, inspiring new generations of ballerinas-to-be.

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