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Taking The Nutcracker home
Or, the search for the perfect video version . . .

There’s no shortage of home-video versions of the world’s most popular ballet. The Nutcracker comes in all shapes and sizes: traditional and contemporary, European and American, staged and filmed, star dancer and star choreographer, Clara/Marie as child and Clara/Marie as grown-up, with Tchaikovsky’s music and without. The story has even been animated. What never makes it to your television screen is the thrill of a live performance, of watching a Christmas tree grow or dancers connect with an audience. But if you can’t get to the real thing this year, or you’re wondering how Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker stacks up against the competition, here’s a rundown of what’s out there.


The first theater " version " of The Nutcracker was the animation of the Nutcracker Suite in Walt Disney’s 1940 Fantasia: the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Coffee, Tea (with those Chinese mushrooms), Russian (split-jumping thistles), Marzipan, the Waltz of the Flowers, and Deems Taylor telling us that Tchaikovsky despised the score (not true). The first Nutcracker to reach American TV screens was the New York City Ballet staging, on Christmas night in 1957 and 1958, with Russian expatriate George Balanchine playing Godfather Droßelmeier.

The two earliest complete Nutcrackers that are commercially available starred famous Russian expatriates. In 1968, Rudolf Nureyev brought his own version to the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden; it’s preserved on a Kultur DVD. Rudi not only choreographs, he doubles as Droßelmeier and the Prince; what’s odd (and confusing) is that he doesn’t play the Nutcracker. This version begins much like Boston Ballet’s, with snow falling on a cozy winter streetscape and guests arriving at the Stahlbaums’ and boys playing leapfrog and an old women selling chestnuts and more boys, on a sled, knocking down Nureyev’s Droßelmeier. Inside, Nureyev is sweet with the children, but John Lanchbery’s tempos for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House range from stately to sluggish, and whereas in many recent Nutcrackers there’s too much camera movement, here there’s not enough, and sometimes, as during the puppet show, the camera is too far away. Clara (Merle Park) falls asleep in a chair; when she wakes, the mice have gathered, and she has to sacrifice her dolls to save the Nutcracker (an authentic touch from the original E.T.A. Hoffmann novella, though there’s nothing authentic about the way the mice rip off her overskirt). The battle is perfunctory, with the Nutcracker killing the Mouse King just as Clara’s slipper comes in, and the most interesting part of the duet for Clara and the Prince that follows is Nureyev’s brief solo.

The Snowflakes are too distant to register, and at the beginning of the second act there’s an odd section where the party guests scare Clara by pretending to be specters. Chocolate brings the same foot waggle that Nureyev had devised for his Don Quixote two years earlier (is this a Spanish thing?); Coffee has an intriguing cast of sultan and slaves, but the Mother Ginger section is omitted. The pas de deux lets Nureyev and Park show what they can do, but the tempos are very slow and there are many curtain calls after each section (plus an irruption of applause in the middle of Park’s variation, just before her manège). And instead of playing the concluding Apotheosis, the orchestra shifts back to the mouse music and we find Clara waking up from the nap in her chair as the guests prepare to leave; the ballet ends with their going-out music as Clara sits on the stairs and looks at her Nutcracker.

In 1977, PBS first broadcast the American Ballet Theatre Nutcracker that starred Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland; a televised holiday staple for years and out on MGM/UA Home Video, it’s the version Americans are most familiar with. The camera moves fluidly through the first act, the painfully thin Kirkland is tremulously expressive, and Alexander Minz is a stern but affectionate Droßelmeier. And Baryshnikov, whipping his sword behind his back as he does split jumps, sets the standard for the Nutcracker in the battle scene. There’s a sense of awe, if not eros, about the duet that follows, and though the second-act divertissements, mostly duets in front of a seated Clara and her Prince, are ordinary, the pas de deux is not. It begins with Baryshnikov airborne in the Prince’s tarantella, then Kirkland fairy-footed in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; only then do we get the main section of the pas de deux, except that it’s a pas de trois, because Droßelmeier appears and duels with the Prince for Clara, reality calling her back from her dream. And reality wins: all the dolls, including the Nutcracker, turn into automatons, and Clara is left to run to the window and look out at the falling snow, as if wondering what the world holds in store for her. It’s a conclusion worthy of Hoffmann; what’s not so worthy is the omission of the coda to the pas de deux (in which Sugar Plum does her series of fouettés), the omission of Coffee (so the telecast could fit into a 90-minute time slot), and the for-children-only voiceover " explaining " the story.


If you’re wondering what Nureyev and Baryshnikov left back home, you can look at the 1978 Bolshoi Ballet version with Vladimir Vasiliev and Yekaterina Maximova that first appeared on Kultur (it’s out now as a " Bolshoi Theater " DVD; the series is new but the performance isn’t). This one begins with the bourgeoisie, bewigged and bewildered, trooping across the stage to the Stahlbaums’; they’re followed by an antic, strutting, windblown Droßelmeier carrying what looks like a red Teletubby Nutcracker. The party children, all obviously adults, include girls dressed as boys and girls in tutus as girls; the Stahlbaum company parlor is on the dowdy side. Droßelmeier turns up in black with a yellow vest and gloves; later he dons a black cloak and conical hat with yellow stars. The Nutcracker is a life-size doll, like Harlequin and Columbine; he falls in a heap while dancing with Fritz, and Masha (in Hoffmann’s story, the heroine is named Marie, and Clara is her new doll, so in Russia she’s Masha) gets to take him to bed. Droßelmeier is prominent in the battle scene, conjuring the Mouse King up from the floor, and in this version the Mouse King is not killed but merely retreats after Masha throws the shoe. The duet is notable for Masha’s being carried aloft by the dolls rather than by the Prince; the couple take part in the Dance of the Snowflakes (who look like refugees from an Esther Williams number) before being airlifted away.

At the beginning of the second act, the mice reappear. Droßelmeier has a solo before exiting; Vasiliev as the Prince executes some ferocious secondes before descending into a pit with the Mouse King and reappearing with the latter’s crown. Chocolate and Tea do jumping jacks; Coffee is an Indian dance; Russian is a folk number; Marzipan is a Watteau couple leading a toy sheep on a ribbon. Droßelmeier is lifted aloft on an all-too-visible wire as the dolls wave goodbye. The Waltz of the Flowers is a dance for couples, with the men holding torches in a way that recalls the country polonaise near the end of the first act of Swan Lake. Everyone stays on as backdrop for the pas de deux, where there’s some nimble pointe work from Maximova but also more irritating curtain calls. For the finale, Masha gets a bridal veil; after the usual reprises, the camera cuts to Masha in her nightgown looking around the tree and grabbing her Nutcracker.

There’s a second Bolshoi version, with Irek Mukhamedov and Natalya Arkhipova, that was filmed in 1989 and released by Spectacor. Not much had changed at the Bolshoi in 11 years: this is the same production. It’s more brightly lit, however, Mukhamedov is more commanding than Vasiliev, and Arkhipova is more delicate than Maximova, so it makes a better case for the Soviet Nutcracker. Representing the post-Soviet Nutcracker is the Kirov Ballet production, with Viktor Baranov and Larissa Lezhnina, that was filmed for Phillips in 1994. The St. Petersburg guests, like their Moscow counterparts, process across the stage; Droßelmeier (Piotr Russanov) has what looks like a hobby horse for Fritz, and once inside, he drops the rag-doll-like Nutcracker, then retrieves it and puts it on a table before joining the young ladies for a friendly game of blind man’s buff, catching Masha and then dancing with her. The young people (many of the boys wearing black-and-white-striped coats) troop out, leaving the adults to dance; Droßelmeier leaves his disappointed partner (I think it’s Luise, the seldom seen older sister of Fritz and Marie/Masha/Clara) to change into his black-and-gold magician’s outfit. After the puppet show (barely visible) and the dolls (Harlequin, a " Columbine " in a pink tutu, and a moor), he leads everyone to the Nutcracker, but only Masha is interested. After the Großvater Tanz (the oldsters start it off, then Gramps totters off and Droßelmeier and the ladies finish up), Masha takes the Nutcracker to bed.

Clouds indicate she’s dreaming. Mice are stealing goodies off the tree; Masha throws pillows at them; after a simple battle sequence, the Nutcracker appears and is chased around before Masha distracts the Mouse King with her shoe. The duet is slow, formal, and somewhat inert; Masha and the Prince also take part in the Dance of the Snowflakes. In the Realm of the Dolls, the prince chases away evil figures before Droßelmeier waves his wand and the unprepossessing divertissements begin (as in the Bolshoi versions, there’s no Mother Ginger). For the pas de deux, Lezhnina changes into a pink tutu, and with men from the Waltz of the Flowers helping out, it looks like the Rose Adagio from Sleeping Beauty, with Baranov (who was Tsarevich Ivan in the Firebird that the Kirov did in Boston last month) the Désiré at the end of the line. The celesta in Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is very backward, and the second, manège section — steps and music — is omitted. After a careful coda, we get the Apotheosis of Masha; cut to her bed, where she gets up and hugs her Nutcracker.


In England, meanwhile, the Royal Ballet version that’s followed Nureyev’s focuses on the Nutcracker as Droßelmeier’s enchanted nephew (as he is in the Hoffmann story) and on Droßelmeier’s attempt, through Clara, to break the spell. The 1985 Peter Wright production with Lesley Collier and Anthony Dowell was broadcast on A&E (complete with Joan Fontaine as host and interminable backstage interviews by Prince Charles) before coming out on Kultur. The Overture finds Droßelmeier (Michael Coleman) in his workshop (a screen title tells us it’s in " Nuremburg " ), hugging the Nutcracker and looking tearfully at a picture of his nephew on the wall. He also has an angel for the Stahlbaums’ tree. The party scene is dominated by unfestive shades of beige and brown; after Father Christmas (complete with crozier) has dropped in to deliver presents, Clara (Julie Rose) receives the Nutcracker, Fritz grabs it and drops it, Droßelmeier wraps it up. Droßelmeier reappears for the battle sequence, revolving in and out of the owl clock; the mice wear military uniforms, and after a bare-knuckle fight, Clara knocks the Mouse King out with her shoe. Four Christmas angels take us to the Dance of the Snowflakes (in which Clara and the Prince (Guy Niblett) participate); eight introduce the second act, in which, as in Boston, Clara and the Prince are presented to the Sugar Plum Fairy (Collier) and her Cavalier (Dowell) and the battle is mimed. A matronly Chocolate gets the divertissements off to a bad start; once again there’s no Mother Ginger, and in the pas de deux, Collier and Dowell look like refugees from Madame Tussaud. At the end, Droßelmeier returns to his workshop and finds his nephew; they fall into each other’s arms.

That version has been superseded, at least on PBS, by a 2000 Royal Ballet Nutcracker that Dowell (now Sir Anthony) directs and stars in as Droßelmeier. Never known for plodding, the late Yevgeny Svetlanov takes 105 minutes to get through this 85-minute score (and that’s without Mother Ginger), giving the production a museum feel. Alina Cojocaru is a coltish, Julie Andrewsy Clara; she seems to be loosening up with the sympathetic young man who helps her put the Nutcracker to bed and bids her a feeling goodnight (Frau Stahlbaum throws Clara a significant glance), but he never reappears. She’s unsexy in her duets with Ivan Putrov’s less prepossessing Nutcracker/nephew, and the way they’re incorporated into some of the divertissements (Clara holding the Chinese parasols, for instance) smacks of a cutesy grand tour. Like Collier and Dowell in ‘85, Miyako Yoshida and Jonathan Cope seem to have been flown in from another ballet. When Clara wakes, she goes outside (why?) and runs into the nephew, who gives her his cloak and in return gets his uncle’s address; she realizes who he was while he goes to the workshop and falls into his uncle’s arms. WGBH will be showing this one Christmas Eve at 9 p.m.; you can also see it on a BBC Opus Arte DVD.


Following its cameo appearance in Fantasia, The Nutcracker took a long time to return to the movies. It reappeared on the big screen in 1986 (and subsequently from Paramount Home Video) as Carroll Ballard’s Nutcracker: The Motion Picture, his shooting of the Pacific Northwest Ballet production choreographed by Kent Stowell and designed by Maurice Sendak, who illustrated the Ralph Manheim translation of Hoffmann’s story. Sendak’s sets, unfortunately, don’t register, and his distinctive dark humor works better in the book; Ballard destroys the illusion of a stage performance without adding any magic of his own. And the party is an agonizing affair in which Vanessa Sharp’s Clara looks at Hugh Bigney’s Droßelmeier as if he had sexually abused her — she’s terrified even of dancing with him. Wade Walthall with his fake handlebar moustache is another wax Prince, Patricia Barker makes little impact as Sugar Plum, and the dancing is not at the New York/ London/St. Petersburg level.

You can’t knock the dancing in Paul Schibli’s 1990 Warner Brothers film The Nutcracker Prince because there isn’t any. You could, however, ask for better animation: the movie has about half the cels it needs. Screenwriter Patricia Watson adheres closer to Hoffmann than any other version, including the story of the Hard Nut (which explains why the Mouse Queen cast a spell on Droßelmeier’s nephew); that and the voiced performances of Megan Follows as Clara and Kiefer Sutherland as the Prince are the film’s strengths. But it falls uneasily between Disney and Looney Tunes, with Phyllis Diller as a scenery-chewing Mouse Queen and Mike MacDonald a nasty Paul Lynde on speed as her son. And the Tchaikovsky score gets sliced and diced until it’s little more than background music. At one point the Waltz of the Flowers is turned into a saccharine number for Clara, " If You Could Hear Me Now, " that makes the original sound like late-period Schoenberg; and the touching moment at the end when Clara meets the unenchanted nephew and says, " Hello, Nutcracker, " is immediately swallowed up by the end-credit song, a vapid ditty that Pyotr Ilyich had nothing to do with.

No complaints are likely to be heard about the dancing in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker — that is, not about the real dancing. The catch is that the Nutcracker Prince in this 1993 film directed by the late Emile Ardolino (Dirty Dancing, Three Men and a Little Lady) is played by child star Macaulay Culkin, who notwithstanding his time at New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet can’t dance and doesn’t even walk very gracefully. But he’s far from the only culprit in this disappointing effort. Ardolino hits you with more camera angles than Citizen Kane, David Zinman whips through the score (which includes an interpolation from Sleeping Beauty) like a fire engine heading for a five-alarmer, and the sound is dull and muffled. Jessica Lynn Cohen is a soulful Clara, and the turns from Darci Kistler as Sugar Plum, Damian Woetzel as her Cavalier, Kyra Nichols as Dewdrop, Wendy Whelan as Coffee, Lourdes López and Nilas Martins as Chocolate, and Bart Robinson Cook as Droßelmeier are what you’d expect, but the stage is underlit (when Whelan spins, her arms ghost), and there doesn’t appear to be any audience, so everyone looks detached, almost abstract. The title wants you to understand that this is Balanchine’s NYCB production. Having died in 1983, however, he had nothing to do with the casting of Culkin, and nothing to do with the making of the film, which is now part of the Elektra Nonesuch Balanchine Library.


Finally, there are the transgressive Nutcrackers. This genre hit the big time in 1991 when Mark Morris choreographed The Hard Nut for his Mark Morris Dance Group at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels; it made its American debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December 1992 and was shown on PBS a few days later in a version that’s preserved on an Elektra Nonesuch videotape. Morris set his Nutcracker in ‘50s/’60s America: the party guests wear headbands and bell-bottoms and mini-skirts; Fritz (Marianne Moore) turns up in red Keds; Marie (Clarice Marshall) has fuzzy bunny slippers; the Nutcracker (Jean-Guillaume Weis) has an Elvis pompadour; the family have a swishy black maid (Kraig Patterson). There’s a guitar sing-along; we get snatches of the swim and the hully-gully; the Großvater Tanz is turned into a rock tango; and Mark himself is funny as a hippie guest in green pants whom Luise (Tina Fehlandt) tries to hump before being ordered off to bed. It’s silly (which is okay) and sophomoric (which is not), and the " choreography " Mickey Mouses the score. After the battle scene (where Fritz’s GI Joes get outmaneuvered by the rats), Marie falls on the floor in a faint while Droßelmeier (Rob Besserer) and his Nutcracker nephew dance a romantic duet, Morris reminding us that Tchaikovsky was in love with his nephew when he wrote the ballet.

Everyone — men and women — gets to be Snowflakes and Flowers; fair enough, but why dress the men up in traditional women’s costumes and give them traditional women’s choreography? They just look clunky. It doesn’t get any better when Morris, explaining that " everybody joins in, because they all helped, " turns the climactic pas de deux into a pas de tout. There’s actual dancing in this act, but it’s not very good, and what Marie and the Nutcracker do for the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Waltz Apotheosis is an embarrassment.

Of course, the beginning of the 1999 Nutcracker that Patrice Bart choreographed for the Staatsoper Berlin makes it seem that Morris was taking dictation from Petipa and Ivanov. The Overture, at a moderate tempo under Daniel Barenboim (who with the Staatskapelle Berlin goes on to give a gorgeously shaped performance), has a nice lilt, but when the curtain rises, the orchestra shifts into the battle music as we see a woman in a white dress and a red hat give her child a nutcracker toy. Giant shadow figures brandishing curved swords dominate the background; the woman grows agitated. Finally the figures, in Middle Eastern robes, burst in and assail mother and child; the nutcracker is dropped; the child is carried off; a Droßelmeier-like figure is seen with the nutcracker. Blackout to Fritz and Luise having a snowball fight. The booklet that accompanies the Arthaus Musik DVD " explains " that Marie was kidnapped from her bourgeois mother by Russian revolutionaries and then adopted by the Stahlbaum family, but she feels out of place with Fritz and Luise and misses her mother. Somehow, Droßelmeier knows her story and means to reunite the two. Oliver Matz’s Droßelmeier looks like a nerdy young Onegin, and he dominates the party scene, where Fritz and Luise harass Marie (Nadja Saidakova) until Droßelmeier gives her the nutcracker and she goes into a trance of remembering her childhood. Fritz and Luise steal it and there’s a classic bad-stepmother sequence where Dr. Stahlbaum scolds the pair while his wife defends them.

The battle is a bewildering affair, with three owl clocks, and the Russian revolutionaries back in place of the mice. Marie throws her nutcracker at the head Russian and they disappear, whereupon a life-size Nutcracker Prince removes his mask and is revealed as Vladimir Malakhov. After Droßelmeier orchestrates a pas de trois for them that’s mostly Droßelmeier, Marie runs off into the darkness and noisy Snowflakes run on, followed by reindeer and a Snow Queen. For the beginning of the second act, Marie’s mother, in a red dress, dances a melodramatic solo to unidentified music; then Marie appears, they’re reunited, the mother dances with Droßelmeier and invites him to join them, but soon they leave and he does yet another solo. There’s an interpolated solo for the Prince (Malakhov does it nicely) before he and Marie take part in the Waltz of the Flowers, along with Droßelmeier and Marie’s mother. Droßelmeier leads the final waltz, then appears on high as everyone else turns back into a doll. No mother at the end, no Russian revolutionaries, and insufficient light throughout.

Even this seems tame compared with Maurice Béjart’s The Nutcracker, which puts " Elle, the Mother " front and center. In this version performed by Béjart Ballet Lausanne and captured on DVD in 2000 by Image Entertainment, we hear Béjart remembering Christmas, remembering how he loved to crack walnuts, remembering how when he was seven, his mother told him she was going away on a long journey. Red-socked Bim (Damaas Thijs) is the focus of this most untraditional Nutcracker, in which with the help of Petipa and Méphisto (Gil Roman playing both roles), a carrot-haired Félix the Cat (Juichi Kobayashi), and a Fairy Godmother (Yvette Horner) who makes Heidi Klum look dumpy, he finds Elle (Elisabet Ros). From time to time, Béjart, on a black-and-white video screen, appears to guide us through the story; along the way, Bim joins a scout troop and rappels up the female bust that dominates the rear of the stage, an orange-haired accordion angel reorchestrates the score, and Béjart’s grandmother shares her memories of him. In Chocolate, Bim takes the bull by the horns; Tea has dancers in Mao outfits riding bicycles; Coffee is Méphisto as magician with a seductive female assistant; Félix does Marzipan — and there’s the " French " number (a kind of apache/tango) so conspicuously missing from Tchaikovsky’s score. The Waltz of the Flowers is a formal affair that has the Fairy Godmother reappearing in men’s wear to dance with Elle à la Dominique Sanda and Sandra Stefanelli in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il conformista. Méphisto, with microphone, explains that " the choreographer did not want to change the classical choreography of the grand pas de deux, so tonight it will be danced in the original version by Marius Petipa. " Well, almost: Sugar Plum (Christine Blanc) and her Cavalier (Domenico Levrè) wear black, and the Cavalier gives way to Félix in the tarantella and the Russian man (Igor Piovano) in the coda, but Blanc has attitude as well as arabesques, and in fact the dancing throughout is first-rate, proof that if you treat The Nutcracker, and the audience, with respect, you can make it do everything but crack nuts.

Issue Date: December 5 - 11, 2003
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