Friday, December 21, 2012

And So To The Ballet

Yes, well, it's Christmas Season, and we have tickets to "The Nutcracker in the Land of Enchantment." A new production by the Festival Ballet Albuquerque.

We are not ballet aficionados to put it mildly. The last ballet we took in -- must have been 20-25 years ago now -- was a rather turgid Swan Lake that was notable for the thunder-footed corps, and we have never been involved in ballet production though we have had many associations with ballet company personnel; it's inescapable in the non-profit performing arts realm.

It was a ballet executive in California who informed me that New Mexico was "the most racist society" she had ever encountered, and this after a significant career at the NEA in DC. After the NEA she went to Santa Fe to run a dance company, and she said she had never - ever experienced the kind of racism she found there anyplace else, not even in Texas. She was horrified.

And of course this particular Nutcracker, at the National Hispanic Cultural Center, would probably be characterized by her as deeply, fundamentally "racist" because of its reconception as a New Mexican story -- that has Indians and Spanish in it, along with some Anglos, even a cowboy or two -- rather than a Russian reconception of a German story. Or something.

We'll see.

Oh, the weather outside is frightful...

(No more snow is predicted here till Christmas Eve, when we're planning an expedition to Santa Fe...)


What a delight!

Having seen some Nutcrackers on the TeeVee over the years, and having heard the music since I was little (my parents both being Tchaikovsky-addicts) we had something of a familiarity with the story and the score and the various dances. We avoided attending "the Annual Nutcracker Ballet" wherever we were, however, because too often it was seen as a kind of Dreary Christmas Ritual to be endured rather than enjoyed. Sad to say, but when these things are done over and over and over again (like the endless stage productions of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol") it becomes less a tradition and more a Holiday Fright.

So when we arrived at the National Hispanic Cultural Center -- where we'd never been -- last night it was with both anticipation and some dread. I was quite taken with the facility. It is gorgeous in a very spare and simple contemporary way, not at all what I expected. The balconied Albuquerque Journal Theater is comfortable and accommodating for a maximum audience of 691. Despite its spare though rather grand appearance, it's actually fairly intimate, which we soon realized as many members of the audience made their way down to the pit to chat amiably with the musicians below.

As we waited for the curtain, our sense of anticipation overcame any sense of dread at all. As the house filled up with the family and friends of the dancers and musicians as well as many eager ballet-goers, we sensed that this would be a special night, not just for those who had ties with the show but for Albuquerque's arts scene in general.

Patricia Dickinson Wells, the choreographer, introduced the evening, and the conductor, Guillermo Figueroa gave a brief talk on the genius of Tchaikovsky's music for this ballet, a project he really didn't want to do but could not very easily turn down as the commission came from the Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg, so you don't send your regrets. He explained that the score is easily one of the most intricately designed and brilliantly conceived of any ballet scores, and that Tchaikovsky had used the story as a vehicle for some extraordinary technical musical exploration. It isn't something that one has to have technical knowledge to appreciate, because you feel it as you hear it. And so it was.

The orchestra under Figueroa's baton was marvelous. From what I could see of them -- which wasn't much -- they were, like the dancers on stage, mostly very young, and they played eagerly, with both skill and authority. It was a real pleasure to hear them.

On to the dancing, which was remarkable in so many ways. The production was a hybrid between the "traditional" version based on whatever artistic model was being used at the time and a specifically New Mexican artistic idea. It was not, to my mind, fully realized; there was a lot farther the designers and choreographer could have gone with the New Mexican theme, and I suspect that as the production develops, they will. This was a first try, in other words, and I suspect that, given the enthusiasm with which it was greeted, it will become the Standard Nutcracker for the region, and that as it does, it will become "more New Mexican."

The principal dancers were mostly very young, some still in high school and younger, and they were for the most part remarkably good. The Clara -- renamed "Maria" -- was not showy at all, but she was a sensitive and appealing dancer who was perfectly cast and beautifully rendered. Her Nutcracker/Soldier was equally remarkable for his assurance and skill, though he is, apparently, still a senior in high school.

The opening party scene was a treat, most of the cast assembling for festivities set in a 19th Century New Mexican hacienda. The choreography was intricate and lovely to watch. The costumes were an adaptation of Victorian holiday wear as it might be interpreted on the New Mexican frontier. Charming.

The Nutcracker himself is not my favorite character in the entertainment firmament as his personality is rather wooden as those things go, and he's not all that engaging. On the other hand, I've always found Clara/Maria kind of selfish, treacly and given over to emotional outbursts and so not a particularly pleasant character. So this pair, danced by Justine Flores and Garrett Dellios were really quite refreshing. Both are young and neither was as self-absorbed as I've often seen the characters (and dancers, for that matter) be. They danced well, with no lack of self-assurance, but that's not the same at all as self-absorption. But of course, they are not the ballet's "stars."

"The Nutcracker" presents a series of set-pieces as Clara/Maria's dream unfolds, starting with the Battle of the Toy Soldiers, in which the Nutcracker character is transformed into a soldier (toy, of course) who vanquishes the Rat King who is carried off by his rat-comrades. The scene is meant to be funny, and the cast played it both for laughs and menace Friday night. The rat's eyes glowed fiery red in the rat-heads worn -- surprisingly comfortably -- by the rat-corps, made up mostly by the younger dancers, with the very youngest dressed as mice, really very cute. The Rat King himself, in this version, was portrayed as a kind of Pancho Villa/Mexican Outlaw sort, with serape and bandoliers, which I'm sure would be considered "racist" -- well, at least if this production were at Popejoy Hall rather than the National Hispanic Cultural Center. This was, after all, a comic scene. I thought the Rat King had a rather feral cat effect going with his headpiece though, and it struck me as a bit odd. Someone in the audience said he thought the Rat King's head was supposed to resemble Coyote, and I thought that was interesting, but I didn't buy it.

The scene was next set in "A Pinon Forest in Winter" for the Dance of the Snowflakes. Though there was no sign of a pinon tree -- or any tree at all -- in this forest, there was plenty of fog and snow, so much fog in fact that many in the hall burst out in a coughing fit. Wrangling the fog machines is always something of a cursed task, and when the stage-fog insensibly fills the hall, it can have a very strong psychological effect on the audience. The stage-fog itself is generally not the cause of the reaction (though it sometimes is, especially if it is not mixed right.) People start coughing because they sense that they are being enveloped in smoke -- but it's not smoke. In New Mexico, I think I've said, many people heat their homes with wood during the winter, and pinon wood is prized and favored for heating -- as well as for the distinctive aroma of its smoke. Pinon is burned in street bonfires known as farolitos (or luminarias, depending on where you are) and the smell of pinon smoke in winter is as characteristic of New Mexico as the aroma of roasting chile during harvest season. Sometimes when stoves and fireplaces start smoking inside houses and buildings (La Fonda in Santa Fe occasionally has this problem, it's old, after all) and rooms fill with smoke, you either have to go outside in the cold or stay and cough and wipe your eyes until the problem is resolved. That's what I think was happening when members of the audience reacted to the stage-fog first encountered in the pinion forest scene for the Dance of the Snowflakes.

I went on at such length about this incident because it was perhaps the most "off" note of the production. Then I thought, "Well, I've been caught in ice-fogs here that were worse!"

The Snow King (Louie Roccato) and Snow Queen (Natalee Maxwell) were very nicely, albeit "traditionally," rendered as was the case with the Waltz of the Snowflakes. This is one scene that could have been a good deal more "New Mexican," but it might take some trees and more adventuresome staging that makes it more of an adventure than a set piece. Of course, here I am trying to direct something I had nothing to do with... ;-)

In the second act, the angels were rendered in a much more "New Mexican" manner, the costumes being ballet adaptations of folklorico wear, and it worked really nicely.

The Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, danced by Julie Cobble and Dominic Guerra, were without doubt the stars of the ballet, and they made the most of it through the rest of the second act. These were two very talented dancers who quite naturally took command of the stage, in solos and duets of both charm and power.

The interludes included a remarkable performance by Jennifer Boren as a "Spanish Snake." She was for that little scene the ballerina assoluta. It was a treat to watch her. The "Chinese" interlude would no doubt have to be classed in the "racist" category, for it was simply some stereotype hopping around by dancers dressed like Chinese dolls. Again, it was supposed to be funny.

The "Fandango," though, was nicely realized. The choreography evoked something of Agnes De Mille's "Oklahoma!" which made me smile.

The "Borreguero" and "Las Pastoras" interludes were sweetly done perfectly appropriate for a New Mexican idea of the Nutcracker ballet. Of course, it helps that Tchaikovsky included Spanish dances in the original! The children who got to play mice in the early battle scene got to play sheep in the later interlude, and it was adorable.

The next interlude, that of the "Storyteller and Children," gave me a bit of heartburn. It was a good idea -- even an excellent one -- but I question the execution. The Storyteller was portrayed by a bearded middle aged Anglo man... uhhh... and the children were dressed and choreographed as if they were part of  "Indian Day" on the Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950's. (I'm so old, I remember...). No, I thought, no. This could be so much better. So much better! Adapt actual Indian dances, use Pueblo -- or even Pow Wow -- costuming ideas; and how about a Native woman rather than an obviously Anglo man  as the Storyteller? Hm? Maybe integrate some Native symbolism into it all. The music works for the Native idea, and I'd really like to see it carried further.

The "Waltz of the Flowers" made up for any reservations (heh) I might have had about the Indian interlude, however. It was gorgeous, and beautifully danced, an exquisite climax to the ballet, more than fulfilling every expectation of what this production could be.

The finale was a little rough, but once the kinks are worked through, I'm sure it will be fine.

The audience, for its part, was enchanted, despite the occasional off note or bobble -- though not from the orchestra which played superbly throughout.  There might have been some uneven or imperfectly realized moments in this "Nutcracker," yet it was on the whole an extraordinary production, much more than we anticipated at the outset.

Such a young cast, dancing so well in a difficult but creative, beautiful production, and an orchestra of such youth and caliber playing the familiar classical/romantic music of the season so brightly in such a welcoming and comfortable facility made for a remarkable and memorable holiday outing.

This "Nutcracker" was no tired or dreary production to be endured. It was instead an enchanting evening to be enjoyed. And we did.

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