The Death of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Other Balletic Nightmares

Posted in Diary of a Directrix, Reviews
December 23rd, 2010 by Devi Snively (The Directrix)

dead sugar plum fairySo, Agustin surprised me with tickets to the Nutcracker Suite as performed by the L.A. Ballet Company this past weekend.  Wow (but not in the good way, alas).  It was nearly as disappointing as Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN (except for 3 saving graces in the 2nd act.)  Ballet sure has changed since I had to hang up my toe shoes due to an ailing knee back when.  But, perhaps I dodged a bullet.

little ballet girlWhere do I begin?  The outing started off so well.  We grabbed some hot toddy at a nearby bar, then entered UCLA’s Royce Hall to find it filled with nicely dressed patrons and lots of little girls in fancy dresses, patent leather shoes and the occasional tutu and tiara.  Man, how I wish I could shop in the little girls’ department – they get the best clothes!  But I digress.

sugarplum fairyI feared early on we might be in trouble.  I knew a live orchestra was unlikely in this economy, but less forgivable I noticed, for the second consecutive time in a Nutcracker program, there was no mention of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  WTF?!!!  You might think the most coveted female role is Clara (sometimes called Maria), but any real ballerina will tell you, the role to die for in the Nutcracker is the Sugarplum Fairy – less stage time, but by far the  best choreography and music (and that amazing tutu!)   For me she IS the Nutcracker Suite and one of my few regrets in life – I never got to dance that role.  But the L.A. Ballet Company, just like the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company several years back, have butchered her out of existence.   Is nothing sacred?

Still, I reminded myself, I was at the ballet – what could be more wonderful?  Sadly, the first act compelled me to write a mental list of many things more wonderful.

vanna white pose

Much of the first act reminded me of a bad silent film, the kind with the overly  long static shots where people over-act with waving arms and talk endlessly only to cut to a title to indicate one mere line of dialogue.  Rather than actual dancing it seemed like there was a lot of Vanna White-esque posing.

drosselmeyerThe biggest affront was their warped interpretation of Godfather Drosselmeyer, who is usually an older, slightly scary-at-first, eccentric gent who’s always struck me as a mix between Willy Wonka, Dr. Caligari and Abraham Lincoln.  pimp drosselmeyerBut to the L.A. Ballet’s casting director, he’s apparently a young, blond, gay pimp in a giant fur coat and bling.  He was just short a purple fedora.  Really?

The choreography was minimal and unremarkable at best.  Some dancers really didn’t seem to know how to move to the music at all, merely stringing together a series of movements rather than flowing seamlessly from one to the next, using every note to expand a little more.   I was quite sure Tchaikovsky was turning in his grave through much of it: such an amazing soundtrack filled with drama, romance,  humor and suspense, wasted on choppy cheerleading moves. There were times the Clara character was just standing on stage looking bored as others paraded around her.  I actually felt embarrassed for her.

6a00d8341c630a53ef0128762467ac970c-400wiSeveral of the dancers, when they were offered chances at some glimpses of proper choreography, baffled me.  I wondered at first if the stage was too small and they were holding back, but I’d learn in ACT II that was simply not the case.  It was bad technique.  I never thought it could be possible, but I found myself bored.  These were some of the most un-dynamic dancers I’d ever seen.  And some did not seem to know how to dance en pointe just yet.  I thought one girl’s shins were gonna snap the way she miscarried herself.

pk_nutcracker_robert_la_fosse_lance_chantiles-wertzlance_callie_reiff_500Perhaps most disappointing was the absence of good storytelling (the first act in a proper production sets up a wonderful story, characters and world).  Aside from Pimp Drosselmeyer, there was no attempt to distinguish any of the characters nor build tension.  The final scene of ACT I where Clara awakens to find the Christmas tree growing, giant mice scurrying and a fierce battle offered no suspense whatsoever.  And how this scene used to terrify me as a child!  But both Clara and the Nutcracker were played by kids who seriously lacked stage presence and the timing of the sequence of events all wrong.  The tree growing felt like an inconsequential afterthought in the BG and barely got a reaction.  The mice costumes were cool, but the dancers spent far too much time on stage merely gesticulating with their paws rather than moving in any interesting way.  What a waste!

big_nutcrackerAs the lights rose during intermission I panicked.  Agustin was so wonderful to have gotten me such a thoughtful gift, I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, I racked my brain for something positive to say. Fortunately,  I needn’t have worried. He turned to me and said, “I’m sorry.  Would you like to go?”  I assured him it was bound to be better in the second act.  Even in a proper production the 2nd act’s mostly dancing without much in the way of story.  Just one good dance would make me happy and I felt confident there had to be at least that.  Fortunately, I was made happy three times over.

Instead of the Sugar Plum Fairy, they had a character called Marie, which was supposed to be Clara’s favorite doll come to life according to the program.  Sadly, while her technique was fine, she danced like she had a stick up her tutu.  I knew girls like her back in dance class – they frequently started dancing later on, so technique had not yet become second nature to them. As such, things came much harder for them and dancing required more concentration.  This can be a serious setback.   I saw this in Marie,who seemed so busy concentrating on the steps, she was no fun to watch – just stiff and precise with no passion (Agustin was amused when my very words would be repeated by a character in BLACK SWAN a few days later, but it’s quite common, so I wasn’t surprised.)  However, her partner – a dancer visiting from Japan, was fabulous.  He did a great solo early on and I experienced a feeling I imagine is not unlike a smoker who takes her first drag after a long flight:  relief, fulfillment, bliss.  I leaned over to Agustin and whispered sincerely, “It was worth it for that.”

6a00d8341c630a53ef012876246b81970c-300wiI’m pleased to say I was even further rewarded.  Two more dancers were positively breathtaking.  The first was a woman who danced the Arabian Dance – she was one of the most beautiful dancers I’ve ever seen.  Her costume was stunning, her body even moreso and her movement was positively thrilling – utterly controlled, yet fluid and seductive, she and the music fused as one, as did she and her partner who was nearly invisible the way only a truly good partner is when a dance highlights one over the other.  I wondered if they had a guest choreographer on this one.  Finally, somebody demonstrated an understanding of how to move to Tchaikovsky!  My body was covered in goosebumps and I got that old familiar feeling – how I longed to float onto the stage and join her.  I was pleased the audience gave her the biggest applause.  See?  They know.  We really do underestimate audiences.  Time to raise the bar, Guys.

l_887a316c73ff645bb6d6845ebd97de07I was sated.  The rest of the show could have been a complete wash and I’d’ve still  left happy as a clam, but after several more clumsy acts, I was rewarded once again.  The Waltz of the Flowers (which I have danced myself) came on and the lead flower was magnificent (the others were mostly quite good, too, and the choreography much improved, though waltzes do tend to be easier for most, I find.  I think it’s because the music is more accessible even if one doesn’t have an ear for classical).

The Rose, the lead flower, was a joy to watch – she looked the way I used to feel whenever I danced – euphoria personified.  How she used the entire space, every movement dynamic, in perpetual motion, so alive.  She made everything appear effortless and fun, and like she defied gravity.  The stage was indeed big enough, though she was bigger still.  Clearly the others had merely been posturing.  But she was truly dancing.  I was horrified by the end of the dance when the music crescendos and so logically, one would think,  the movement should climax, too, but instead the choreography petered out – resorting to little more than “glorified vogue-ing” – d’oh!  But bless the Rose.  Even given crappy choreography she was still alive, trying to break out of this mundane posturing.  She looked like a butterfly pinned to a board – fluttering her wings despite being held captive.  Shame on the choreographer, but you go, Girl!

Backstage_at_the_Ballet_93After, Agustin and I shared a long dinner, wine flowing, as he humored me while I babbled ballet for the next few hours.  After all these years, it still gets me every time.  In the end, well worth the ticket price, despite the disappointments.  Still, be warned if you plan to attend a contemporary performance of the Nutcracker.  It might not be what you remember.  I plan to rent the 1970s DVD version with Baryshnikov as soon as it’s attainable from Netflix again (I was pleased to see there’s a “very long wait” to rent it now.  I guess the tradition still lives on) and recommend doing the same.

jr_nutcracker_marquez_hristov_close_500I hadn’t meant to write a dissertation, but this is what happens when I get going on one of my topics.  So, I’ll hold off on my BLACK SWAN rant for another day.  In the meantime, if anybody sees the SugarPlum Fairy – please send her all my love and tell her I miss her terribly.

One Response to “The Death of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Other Balletic Nightmares”

  1. Theron says:

    It’s been a while, but I hear the SugarPlum Fairy is looking for soul food and a place to eat. You should invite her over one night. I’m sure you’d have lots to mull over.

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