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"The Nutcracker" Grows Up American Ballet Theatre puts a vivid twist on a holiday classic

By LAUREN KAY


As the holidays approach, the dance world offers its annual flurry of The Nutcracker, that classic holiday tale about a little girl, her new Nutcracker doll, and their fanciful adventures on Christmas Eve. This year, there's particular buzz surrounding the American Ballet Theatre's production, which begins on December 22 at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House. The troupe's making waves because its Nutcracker is choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky.

Ratmansky made headlines last year when he accepted ABT's offer to become artist-in-residence instead of continuing his relationship with New York City Ballet. This was noteworthy because Ratmansky has become a quiet golden boy in the ballet world, choreographing intricate and difficult work while maintaining a loyalty to narrative, even in his abstract pieces. His movement can be sweeping and ferocious or delicate and tender, but it's always girded by sophistication---Russian romance underpinning contemporary skill.

As for the dancers’ reaction to this new choreographer, Victor Barbee, associate artistic director at ABT, says, “What dancer wouldn’t wish to be in the room when a Petipa, a Tudor, an Ashton begins to work? That’s how we all feel in the studio with him. He’s very adept at presenting his visualization clearly, and we all trust the picture he paints, even if we don’t understand every single dot he’s creating with his brush. You have to stand back to see his whole picture.”

Ratmansky has whipped up a subtly sensual version of NutcrackerInstead of telling a child’s fairy tale, he highlights emotional development, the loss of innocence, and the underbelly of fleeting happiness. “Alexei always works from the heart, and he always works first from what he hears in the music,” Barbee says. “He hears Tchaicovsky’s Nutcracker as darker than most. Also, as a team, we knew we wanted it to be somewhat traditional and family-oriented, but without making it a cartoon. In Alexei’s version, the story is an analogy about growing up, about what’s around the corner sometimes being scary, about metamorphoses and the journey we all take from childhood to adulthood.”

Manifestations of this idea include a snow scene that’s blizzard-like with aggressive snowflake dancers instead of the usual, downy-soft trickle, and a Waltz of the Flowers that features buzzing male bees for extra energy. Most striking is Ratmansky’s use of the unforgettable Grand Pas De Deux music: Usually danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, the choreographer has given the climactic section to new characters, an imagined older Clara and Nutcracker Prince. (The Sugar Plum Fairy is now a minor role.)

In a December rehearsal of this new section, working with principal dancers Paloma Herrera and Cory Stearns, Ratmansky sat forward in his chair, glasses clenched in hand. The dancers swept through the lush, nuanced movement, with luxurious leg extensions, quivering bourees, contemporary angled lines and gigantic lifts. During a particularly intricate phrase, Ratmansky popped to his feet and asked for Herrera’s walk to be a gesture of enticement and yearning. “You are slaves of something inside you,” he said. “This is the feeling that leads you somewhere, not the step.” And later, when older Clara had to fall to her knees, crying in overwhelmed emotion, Ratmansky paused to explain the motivation. “You are lonely in front of your whole life,” he said. “This moment of growing up, of understanding, brings you to your knees, in a sort of heaven and hell. Think of this story as you dance.”

The decision to produce this new type of Nutcracker was not taken lightly, Barbee says. Budget constraints, conflicting artistic schedules, obvious nostalgic resonance, and lofty choreographic expectations were all considered. But Barbee adds that the process has been rewarding: “It’s almost like being in the last month of pregnancy and awaiting the arrival. We all know it’s going to be outstanding, and on December 22nd, when the curtain goes up, that’s when we will all really see Alexei’s vision completed. But this time, the parents won’t just be watching their kids to see their reactions. The grown ups will be talking, too.”

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Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer based in New York City