It may only be a truism that, for example,
French musicians play French music best, and ditto the British,
Germans and Russians. But what is beyond argument is how acutely
Russian artists have Tchaikovsky’s music in their very bones.
Just how deeply embedded Tchaikovsky is should be borne out this Sunday afternoon, Dec. 22, when the Moscow Ballet arrives at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts for its version of the composer’s most beloved ballet, "The Nutcracker," confidently titled "The Great Russian Nutcracker," and part of the Brooklyn Center’s World of Dance series.
For a decade now, the Moscow Ballet has brought the grand tradition of Russian ballet to audiences in the United States, and its Brooklyn stop is part of a 10th-anniversary U.S. tour. Its all-Russian cast of 42 dancers, under the guidance of artistic director Vitali Akhoundrov, began their dance training as early as age 8; all of the members of the company range in age from 19 to 30.
Unbelievable as it may seem to audiences today, Tchaikovsky’s "The Nutcracker" was not universally admired when it was first performed in St. Petersburg in 1892, on a double bill with his one-act opera "Iolanta." What now seems ubiquitous to people who have grown up listening to his irresistible melodies, whether on TV shows, in commercials, the movies or the theater, began with a grudging admiration, if not outright enthusiasm.
Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s fairy tale "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," Tchaikovsky’s ballet actually came about rather fitfully, since the composer didn’t see how the story could translate into a ballet. However, after reading a Russian translation of the French version of the tale by Alexandre Dumas fils, Tchaikovsky reluctantly agreed to give it a try.
By the time the 50-year-old Tchaikovsky began work on "The Nutcracker," he had already made his reputation as a creator of rapturous, audience-pleasing ballets. His "Swan Lake" in 1877 and "Sleeping Beauty" in 1890 had seen to that.
For the next 18 months, Tchaikovsky worked on both "The Nutcracker" and "Iolanta"; their dual premiere on Dec. 18, 1892 - marking the first time the ballet was performed as a festive holiday showcase - was politely received, but at the time, his richly coloristic ballet score, laced with such effects as a wordless women’s chorus and various "foreign" instruments (like the celesta, a piano-like instrument that provides the irresistible sounds for the climactic pas de deux, "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy"), was considered too strange and modern.
The renowned choreographer Marius Petipa staged this first production.
It’s unfortunate, in many ways, that Tchaikovsky would only live another year, dying in 1893, at age 53, but perhaps most unfortunate was that he did not live to see his initially confusing ballet become a perennial. That same "confusing" score remains modern in the best sense: no matter how often it is performed, or in what guises its music pops into our ears, its lively dance numbers - including several of the best waltzes this side of the Danube - are forever etched in our collective musical memories.
And that is what "The Great Russian Nutcracker" hopes to tap into. In honor of its 10th anniversary, the ballet commissioned the Moscow Festival Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Finashev to record the score for them "especially dedicated to the performance of the Nutcracker ballet," explained Akiva Talmi, producer of the Moscow Ballet. "[’The Great Russian Nutcracker Official Soundtrack’] is specifically recorded for the tempo of the ballet, because you can’t dance to the quick concert version."
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have colorful and lavish set designs by Valentin Federov, along with hundreds of costumes and life-size animal puppets to help along the enchantment, as well as a fresh re-imagining of Petipa’s original choreography.
Based on reviews of the current tour, its approach is hitting a chord.
"The people in the audience at the Show Me Center [on the Southeast Missouri State University campus] probably won’t soon forget this ’Nutcracker,’" said a review in the Southeast Missourian newspaper. "You didn’t have to be a balletomane to appreciate the extraordinary abilities of this company."
One slight, and inarguably timely, change from the original is that the ballet’s young heroine, Clara (or Masha, as she is in the Russian version), no longer enters the Land of Sweets for the beguiling second act; rather, she enters the Land of Peace and Harmony, or mir.
But by any name, the Moscow Ballet’s version of Tchaikovsky’s timeless classic should be a "Nutcracker" to cherish.
Additional reporting by Lisa J. Curtis.
The Brooklyn Center for the Performing
Arts presents The Moscow Ballet production of "The Great
Russian Nutcracker," Dec. 22 at 2 pm at the Walt Whitman
Theater on the Brooklyn College Campus, one block from the junction
of Flatbush and Nostrand avenues. Tickets are $35. For tickets,
call (718) 951-4500 and for more information, including parking,
visit their Web site at www.brookl