Where 'Nutcracker' is just a ballet

Americans are indulging in their yearly December 'Nutcracker' mania, but in Tchaikovsky's homeland it's a different story

World Arts

December 19, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Sun Foreign Staff

MOSCOW -- This is the motherland, which infused the great Tchaikovsky with emotion, melancholy and music, where Petipa created modern classical ballet, where the czars lived and died against a landscape of grandeur and gilded spectacle.

This is the land that gave birth to "The Nutcracker," and Russians will tell you that they have the very same attachment to its sugarplum fairies and dancing snowflakes as do Americans, who have adopted the ballet as one of their favorite family rituals each December. They will tell you that sincerely, completely unaware that they don't know what they're talking about.

Russians are merely fond of "The Nutcracker," which Marius Petipa, the great choreographer and the czar's first ballet master, commissioned in 1891 in St. Petersburg. Americans have transformed affection into madness.

As in America, "The Nutcracker" is performed here in December. This month, Moscow, a city of about 12 million, offers a half-dozen performances by four world-class companies, and all seats are filled.

By contrast, Baltimore and its suburbs -- a mere 2 million people -- offer about 20 productions, from student companies to a touring Russian troupe. If that's not enough, you can drive to Washington and pick from many more. You can see it performed on ice, on video, at fire halls -- even at Baltimore's B&O Train Museum.

"Well, maybe there's a slight difference," concedes Irina Chernomurova, touring manager for the Ballet Company of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Mos-cow Music Theater.

Chernomurova found herself in Washington last December, when the Stanislavsky performed seven "Nutcrackers" at the Kennedy Center, along with five "Swan Lakes" and two "Chopinianas" during a 10-day engagement.

"Can you imagine how I felt?" she asks, recalling her surprise. "We had 'The Nutcracker' every night, sometimes twice a day. The ballet and music were in my heart and before my eyes. Whenever I managed to visit a store, all I heard was 'Nutcracker' music. There were 'Nutcracker' toys everywhere.

"When I turned on the television, I saw ads for the Washington Ballet's 'Nutcracker.' ... In the newspaper, I saw ads for 11 different performances, including a company from Moscow I had never heard of.

"When I saw that, I thought, 'My God, why do they need another "Nutcracker?" ' I was even more surprised when I discovered the hall was filled for every performance.

"In Moscow, you would never see this."

Beyond 'The Nutcracker'

Indeed, in Moscow you can find a few performances in January, more in February and others throughout the season. The Kremlin Ballet concluded its season with "The Nutcracker" on June 22. In Russia, "The Nutcracker" is part of the repertoire. There's an effort to schedule it on New Year's Eve, the big seasonal celebration during the 70 years when Soviet power frowned on Christmas.

Parents here love to take their children to "The Nutcracker." But they take them to other ballets as well. In the United States, many Americans may see only one ballet in their lives, and that will be "The Nutcracker."

This past week, the Stanislavsky performed "Swan Lake," as it does regularly throughout the season. Many parents brought young children, who were expected to sit quietly during the three-hour performance. And they did.

"Swan Lake" is the Stanislav-sky's most popular ballet, followed by "Giselle," the story of a peasant girl whose romance with an aristocrat ends in betrayal. Last year's trip to Washington was the company's first U.S. visit, and it planned to take "Swan Lake," "The Spirit Ball" and "Chopiniana."

"Then they specifically asked us to bring 'The Nutcracker,' " Chernomurova says. "We realized as Christmas was coming, they needed a 'Nutcracker.' "

In Moscow, the Stanislavsky is as well-known as the Bolshoi, but audiences outside Russia are largely unfamiliar with it.

"We realized the audience had come not to see the Stanislavsky but to see 'The Nutcracker,' " Chernomurova says. "But on the other hand we performed it very well, and 'The Nutcracker' encouraged interest in our theater."

Many of the troupes that tour the United States this time of year, however, are not established companies, but groups formed for one tour to perform "The Nutcracker."

Often they include a couple of well-known dancers along with a collection of unknowns. On the strength of the magic words "Russian" and "Nutcracker," they draw large audiences.

Vyacheslav Gordeyev, artistic director of the Russian State Ballet in Moscow, says such tours often result in inferior ballet.

"A promoter can say, 'I can bring you "The Nutcracker" for 10 times less,' and you get maybe 20 dancers, rushed from city to city, living in terrible conditions," he says. "It's awful for big audiences to see low-quality productions. It's a great pity because this devalues Russian art. Only the music of Tchaikovsky saves it."

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