George Balanchine's Nutcracker
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George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (1993) (DVD)
The first feature film to showcase the world's most beloved ballet, this joyous interpretation of the holiday classic tells the story of a young girl whose love for a toy turns it into the handsome prince Macaulay Culkin ("Richie Rich," "Home Alone"), and together they are brought to the Land of Sweets, where an enchanting spectacle awaits them. Directed by Academy Award-winner Emile Ardolino ("Sister Act," "Dirty Dancing") and narrated by Academy Award-winner Kevin Kline ("Dave," "A Fish Called Wanda"). USA Today says this film is "wrought with the grace, gentility, artistry and shimmering glow of nostalgia" while the New York Times calls it quite simply "captivating".]]>
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From a performance standpoint, I'd give this an A-minus mainly because the versions of "The Nutcracker" I've seen most often cast the Nutcracker Prince in a much more active role dancewise. Still, everyone else did a fantastic job. Noteworthy were the Pas de Deux by the Cavalier (Damian Woetzel) and Sugarplum Fairy (Darci Kistler), and the powerful dance presence of Coffee (Wendy Whelan). The other "Sweets" performed very well also. So long as you try not to picture Macaulay Culkin as a ballet dancer, you'll be okay. Let's face it: you can't expect the little guy to measure up next to the NYC Ballet, but he is there to add a little star appeal and possibly sell ballet to your kids (which may not be a bad idea). Nuff said. By the way, the younger performers from the School of American Ballet were wonderful.
Regarding disc features, the DVD has some cool stuff to offer: two viewing formats, 30-scene index, and some good production notes regarding the history of the show, camera choreography and description of ILM's special effects.
The dancers of the NYC Ballet and the students from its associated school, the School of American Ballet, have performed the Balanchine Nutcracker every Christmas season since 1969 (the film was made in 1993). I prefer this production in great part because children and not adults perform the children's roles unlike most of the other tapes and DVDs available. Here the kids are delighfully energetic and enthusiastic; the only sour note is Macauley Culkin as the nutcracker-prince. He attended the SAB for awhile, and he looks thoroughy bored at returning to his old haunts. I don't know if it's his fault or the director's, but his disdainful expressions are rather off-putting. He was obviously cast to draw a larger audience, and he certainly looks the part, but his dancing skills aren't good enough for what amounts to the lead role.
A recent article in the NYT said that the SAB has for some years been making a concerted effort to attract more boys (free tuition, no tights, frequent auditions, single-sex classes, etc.). The result is that all the boys' roles in this performance are filled by boys and not disgruntled little girls.
I quite enjoy this DVD, and I highly recommend it. It has few extra materials; only some short biographies and some footage about making the film. I would like to have had some rehearsal and backstage footage since I'm not familiar with how a ballet is put together.
Here we have the 1993 film version of the Balanchine production, some forty years after its premiere; and a very fine film it is. It is directed by Emile Ardolino whose influence on the filming of American dance cannot be underestimated. For years, he racked up Emmy Awards (seventeen in total!) for his work profiling dance on PBS's programs "Dance in America" and "Live from Lincoln Center." It is Ardolino's finesse in guiding Ralph Bode's cinematography that sets this "Nutcracker" apart from others - in particular Carroll Ballard's 1986 film of Pacific Northwest Ballet's version and the recent San Francisco Ballet release (which, though beautiful in its own right, is marred by insensitive camera angles). Ardolino understands ballet and understands what a dance audience looks for. As a result, we get some gorgeous shots that are perfectly framed that maintain a respectful distance from the dancers. Oftentimes in dance films, we get so many close ups and odd camera angles it is impossible to get a holistic feel for the dance. Not so in this case.
The actual production has never looked better. Rouben Ter-Arutunian's set designs are absolutely stunning up close and, although Barbara Karinska's costumes are somewhat old-fashioned (including some rather heavy tutus for the Waltz of the Snowflakes scene), they have a nostalgic, stately charm. Jessica Lynn-Cohen is a surprisingly mature Marie. Her performance is nuanced and fully conceived. I wish I could say the same for her co-star, Macauley Culkin as the Nutcracker, in an odd example of stunt-casting. His performance is comparatively stilted and awkward. This would be perfectly serviceable in a stage production, but up close on film, it doesn't pass muster. Thankfully, his time on screen is relatively limited.
This production was filmed just before the New York City Ballet's status as a "Balanchine company" began to wane somewhere in the mid-1990s (although some would attest this happened earlier). Thus, we get to see some performances that represent the zenith of the company's potential. Darcy Kistler exhibits fleet, elegant precision as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Her Pas de Deux with Damian Woetzel (who has since gone on to become a formidable dance director and lecturer) is breathtaking. Kyra Nichols gives an exhilarating, powerful performance as the Dew Drop leading the Waltz of the Flowers. Bart Robinson Cook plays a delightful Drosselmeyer (a role which Balanchine played himself in the early years). Likewise, the way the corps throw themselves into numbers like the Waltz of the Snowflakes and Waltz of the Flowers is unparalleled.
All that said, the true star of the show is still Balanchine's sensitive choreography. With the libretto being so bare bones, it is up to the choreographer to make or break this ballet. Here, we get an atmosphere of warmth and love in the Act I party scene, a detailed master class in expressive movement. Utilizing only mime and gesture, Balanchine imbues every character onstage with a distinct personality and place in the action. (Credit must also be given to the talented students of the School of American Ballet.) Also palpable is the familial air of the Stahlbaum household, exemplified in a brilliant and sweet entr'acte that Balanchine interpolates between the party and battle scenes (utilizing music cut from Tchaikovsky's "The Sleeping Beauty") in which Marie's worried mother (played by the lovely Heather Watts) comes looking for her daughter who has fallen asleep by the Christmas tree. After the narrative subsides and the dancing takes over, the corps numbers become organic extensions of Tchaikovsky's brilliant music. In fact, with Balanchine, the dancers become embodiments of the music - this is especially the case with the Waltz of the Flowers closing the divertissement of Act II. Just seeing the melodic patterns work themselves out through the dancers is breathtaking. Speaking of the music, Tchaikovsky's score gets a wonderful, sensitive performance here from David Zinman and the New York City Ballet Orchestra.
Seeing this "Nutcracker" after so many other incarnations always feels like returning "home." It is a lovingly constructed rendition that I am glad has been preserved on film.
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