Dancing on the Edge 'Nutcracker': Spending a very long weekend with Clara and Drosselmeyer, over and over and over.

December 21, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

Man is constantly testing his limits. How high can he fly, how fast can he run, how many Swedish meatballs and squares of Monterey Jack cheese can he cram on a small paper plate during happy hour? The parameters are constantly changing.

But this holiday season, one reporter undertook the ultimate challenge: How many performances of "The Nutcracker" could one man attend in a single weekend without losing his mind?

Each year, more than 2 million people watch the popular Christmas ballet about a young girl (Marie in some versions, Clara in others) given a nutcracker doll by her mysterious godfather and the fantastic dream it inspires.

But what would be the effects on the central nervous system of repeated viewings of the Nutcracker and Mouse King squaring off with their toy swords and overly revealing tights?

How many times could one watch the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy before rushing the stage and shrieking: "FOR GOD'S SAKE, SOMEBODY MAKE HER STOP!?"

Incredibly, there was no raw data available.

A swami from India, Maujgiri Maharaj, once stood continuously for 17 years while performing the Tapasya, or penance. When sleeping, he would lean against a plank. We are engaged in a similarly lofty experiment of the mind here.

What follows is a chronicle of our Nutcracker test conducted last weekend, as best can be recalled.

Goucher College

Friday, 7: 30 p.m.: Well, this is it. I'm nervous, but eager to get started.

Tonight's performance is by the Donetsk Ballet from the Republic of Ukraine, which is "internationally acclaimed," according to the program.

Before the house lights dim, I read up on the history of "The Nutcracker." It was first performed in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The critics ripped it. The Sugar Plum Fairy was pronounced beefy and unattractive and apparently displayed all the grace of a Siberian washer-woman.

Following this catastrophe, it was performed sparingly in Russia and Europe over the next half-century.

In this country, George Balanchine breathed new life into "The Nutcracker" in 1954 with restructured choreography -- and (presumably) a Sugar Plum Fairy who did not bear a strong resemblance to Yogi Berra.

When the curtain rises, the Donetsk performance proves to be fairly humdrum. The kids are cute as the dickens, but the opening street scene and the scene where the party guests arrive both seem to lack energy, and audience response is tepid.

Aram Manoukian, as the godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, dominates the performance and is the obvious locus of its humor, although with his white powdered wig, black tights, ruffled white shirt and blue velvet jacket, he looks like an eerie combination of Thomas Jefferson, Rudolf Nureyev and Travis Tritt.

The woman playing Marie (Svetlana Yeletskaia) is not quite so riveting to watch. Her movements seem almost lethargic at times and her tight smile throughout the dances suggests someone trying to be pleasant while enduring an enema.

Things pick up a bit during the Battle Scene between the mice and soldiers and the Journey Through the Land of Snow. But during the intermission, I overhear a woman telling an acquaintance: "How does it feel to watch an over-the-hill ballerina?' obviously referring to Yeletskaia.

Ouch. Act II seems equally listless up until the Waltz of the Flowers, which gets a big hand from the audience. But things don't improve markedly from there.

At one point I look over at my 11-year-old daughter, who grins bravely but seems to be struggling to stay awake. By the final curtain, she looks like someone slipping into the initial stages of general anesthesia.

Leaving Kraushaar Auditorium in a driving rainstorm, I am enveloped in gloom.

If the rest of the performances are this desultory, this Nutcracker experiment will be short-lived, indeed.

A couple more of these and I'd crack like a two-minute egg.

School for the Arts

Saturday 2 p.m.: Pulling up to the school's marquee on Cathedral Street, a statistic gleaned from earlier research leaps to mind: There are now over 230 major productions of "The Nutcracker" nationwide. And that doesn't even take into account the hundreds of small, community productions put on every year.

For some reason, this proves oddly comforting. Maybe I just hit the Donetsk Ballet on an off-night. Who knows, maybe they had a rough flight over here. Or maybe their luggage ended up in Des Moines. That would throw my performance off, if it happened to me.

Thankfully, from the opening curtain, it's clear the School for the Arts' "Nutcracker" is much more high-energy and much more well, fun.

The fellow in the role of Marie's little brother Fritz (Rodney Pallanck) does an excellent job playing the type of sneering, hyper little pain-in-the-neck you want to wrestle to the ground and pump full of Ritalin.

In fact, the entire cast is wonderful. And yet the first signs of "Nutcracker" overdose are beginning to manifest themselves.

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