Saturday, December 7, 2013
Visions of sugar plums danced in their heads
There's not a lot of singing in "The Nutcracker."
Okay, there's no singing at all.
Which, as an opera buff, took me a while to get used to.
Not a lot of plot development either. It's Christmas, in an well-to-do 1850s household. The boys get swords and bugles. The girls get dolls. Then a mysterious guest in a black cape arrives and dispenses more marvelous gifts, mechanical dolls that dance. An older girl, Clara, is given a nutcracker figure, which her naughty brother promptly breaks.
As I watched the spectacle unfold Friday at the Auditorium Theater, opening night of the Joffrey Ballet's holiday favorite, which runs until Dec. 28, I idly wondered what it all was about. Not the story—that's plain enough, simplicity itself by opera standards. No mistaken identities, no jealous pharaohs or magic rings. But the subtext. What's the message here? Beauty, of course, and grace, and fantasies of young girls, and the luscious music by Tchaikovsky. "The Nutcracker" is about perfection, about heaven, achieved in our dreams at Christmas.
In the first act, I suspected there might be some deeper, more subtle significance related to the boys, with their martial music, newspaper hats and drawn swords, swooping in and attacking the girls, on their knees, playing with their dolls. Maybe because earlier in the day I had viewed this video from Time magazine, "How Far We Haven't Come: All the Terrible Ways the Media Treated Women in 2013 in One Video." Gender politics was squirming uncomfortably in a chair at the back of my mind, waiting to have its say.
But "The Nutcracker" doesn't belong in Time's list. First, it's 120 years old. Nothing is more dreary than taking our supposed contemporary enlightenment and trudging off into the past to measure, judge and condemn things. It's ballet, an inherently sexist endeavor —the men lift the women, not visa versa. Chalk it up to biology, another inherently sexist endeavor, which still has a say in our world, whether we like it or not. And besides, the Joffrey folk do the best with the material they've got -- Clara, I noticed, runs in and delivers a timely crack onto the head of the Mouse King, one of those see-we're-not-sexist moments so de rigueur in popular entertainments it is almost itself offensive. Or maybe I'm reading in too much. Maybe artistic director Ashley Wheater just needed to give Clara something to do at that point.
Second, it's grand Russian ballet. I don't want you to think I sat there trying to extract great sociological meaning out of it. (I was trying to keep my eyes open — not to take anything from the performance, but it's been that kind of week). I just settled in my seat, occasionally pinching an earlobe, hard, with a fingernail to focus my attention, and listened to the music, watched the smooth, graceful, precise and beautiful dance, and enjoyed. As with "La Traviata" last month, I lack the technical facility or depth of knowledge to properly critique the thing -- nobody fell over, that I noticed, or dropped another dancer, or collided with any scenery a la the hippos in "Fantasia." The Sugar Plum fairy, April Daly, was a perfect specimen of dancer who seemed to do exactly what she was supposed to do with flawless precision. The children were delightful and enthusiastic. The costumes were lovely, dresses of teal and purple and rose and deep blue. The set too. I even enjoyed the audience, which was well freighted with tall, enthusiastic young girls with muffs and spangled headbands, one of whom, maybe seven, practiced her pirouettes at intermission in the lobby of the Auditorium, her hands folded over her head, spinning lightly around, a prima ballerina by the popcorn counter. That alone was worth going to see.
Photos courtesy of the Joffrey Ballet/copyright Cheryl Mann