Maryland Public Television is giving a double present to lovers of ballet -- the best version ever of an oft-seen classic and a new edition of a rarely seen gem.
First up, tonight at 9 o'clock on MPT, channels 22 and 67, is another running of Mikhail Baryshnikov's version of "The Nutcracker," a perfect 90 minutes for Christmas Eve.
If you've seen this one before -- it was originally made for CBS but has become a PBS staple -- you know you won't mind seeing it again. If you haven't, don't miss it.
This is not the same sort of "Nutcracker" you might have sat through down at the local community theater. In re-choreographing this ballet for American Ballet Theatre, Baryshnikov has taken what was a dream performance for a little girl, and thus for an audience of children, and turned it into a coming-of-age story of a young woman whose journey into this magic kingdom where she first feels romantic love causes her to turn from the toys of her youth to face the greater challenges of the future.
It's moving and poignant and it stars two of the greatest dancers of our time, Baryshnikov as the Nutcracker Prince and Gelsey Kirkland as Clara. Alexander Minz as Drosselmeyer, the man who gives Clara the Nutcracker as a Christmas gift, and Marco Paredes as the evil Mouse King are also outstanding.
Tomorrow night on MPT at 9 o'clock, "Great Performances" presents a rarely seen full-length production of "La Bayadere" by England's Royal Ballet. This ballet, taped at London's Royal Opera House, offers a pretty and pleasant end to Christmas Day.
If you think you've seen "La Bayadere," you've probably seen just one scene of it, a spectacular dance between a man and his vision of his deceased lover that takes place in an eerie land called the Kingdom of the Shades. It's in the repertoire of many companies. But the entire ballet, set to a Ludwig Minkus score, is not often staged.
Frankly, it's easy to understand why when you see it. Though it is nice to enter into the Kingdom of the Shades understanding what is going on, how this woman came to die and why this man is so upset about that, there is a lot of standing around in the first couple of acts, with dated pantomime used to try to move the story along.
However, while the Kingdom of the Shades scene features bravura choreography for two principals, the characters of Solor and Nikiya, as well as difficult assignments for the corps, there is another important role that makes it to the stage only in such a full-length version.
As with "Giselle" and "Swan Lake" and so many other story
ballets, "La Bayadere" is a tale of star-crossed lovers. It takes place in India. Solor loves Nikiya, but the Rajah declares that Solor must marry his daughter. When the Rajah discovers that Solor has another love, he manages to do away with Nikiya, which leads us into the Kingdom of the Shades.
Irek Mukhamedov is appropriately spectacular as Solor, a strong, sure dancer in a part designed to show off just those attributes. Altynai Asylmuratova is all sinewy, sinuous strength as Nikiya. But not to be overlooked are the grace and precision shown by Darcey Bussell as the Rajah's daughter, who doesn't appear in the Kingdom of the Shades but has some of the best dances in earlier scenes. Anthony Dowell makes an appearance in a dramatic role as the older man who also loves Nikiya.
The corps of the Royal is one of the class acts in all of ballet, and the members demonstrate their depth and strength in the celebrated opening of the Kingdom of the Shades scene.
One by one, 24 dancers come down a ramp at the back of the stage and, a step and an arabesque at a time, go back and forth jTC across the stage, slowly, with subtle but strong drama, filling its canvas in a vision of white. The Royal dancers don't miss a beat, or a step, of this delicate, difficult segment.
The celebrated dancer Natalia Makarova staged this version of "La Bayadere" -- as she did years ago for American Ballet Theatre -- basing her work on the original 1877 choreography by Petipa.
"The Nutcracker" and "La Bayadere" on back-to-back nights are special treats for dance fans to find under their electronic Christmas tree.