You can tell the quality of a Nutcracker by its snowblowers. In the Lincoln Center, snow doesn't just fall straight down from the rafters -- instead, it is blown gently by fans in the wings, that mix the snowfall into a beautiful flurry. As the corp de ballet posé pirouette and coupé jeté en tournant, so do the bits of snow spin in turbulence. A thick sheet eventually covers the whole stage, capturing Marie and her prince's footprints as they journey toward the land of sweets.
It's perhaps an odd and superficial way to judge a ballet, yet this level of care and detail is entirely telling of the New York City Ballet's magical production of the Nutcracker. In everything from the staging, to the acting, to the dancing, it is clear that no stone has been left unturned. While I usually can't wait for the festivities of Act I to be done with, I found myself unexpectedly enraptured in the childrens' interactions. Every child had such different ways of teasing one another and reacting with their parents. Some were naughty, some were shy, and you could even see a mini-story unfold as children learnt their lessons over the course of the party. Come the battle between rank and rodent, I was again delightfully entertained. Groups of each broke off into complex tactics, leaping over and pouncing at one another, to the point that I actually began to fret for the Nutcracker prince.
Once the snowflakes came on stage, the richness of acting gave way to a richness of choreography. Balanchine's gift of visualizing music brings Tchaikovsky's grand score to life, lending a unique emotional quality of mystique and treachery that a winter journey for a small child dressed in a nightgown really should have. As the key changed from minor to major, so did the corps' movements change from frantic to languid. It is stunning choreography that had me at the edge of my seat, straining my eyes to soak in as much of it as possible.
With its short vignettes and lack of a story, Act II didn't have as much of a chance to set itself apart from other Nutcrackers. The Spanish had flair; the Chinese were sharp and cheerful; Mother Ginger was as horrifying as the day I ran out from under her skirt many lifetimes ago. There were some unique touches however, the most charming of which being the addition of a small flock of confused sheep to the Mirlitons; and the most mind-bending of which being the Sugar Plum Fairy's slide across the stage in an arabesque on pointe. My jaw literally dropped as Gonzalo Garcia, holding Tiler Peck steady in an arabesque, began to drag her slowly across the stage. Her arabesque remained completely steady as her whole body was displaced. It is difficult to describe because it is simply beyond ballet's vocabulary.
With its debut in 1954, this production of the Nutcracker is said to have sparked off the worldwide trend of staging it as a Christmas tradition, and it is not difficult to see why. Joy flows off the stage with every leap and bound, filling the audience with the spirit of the season.