Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” — December 23, 2009 at the Philadephia Academy of Music

Interesting to me as someone who is less aware of ballet and more aware of opera. The structure is of course very similar, which is no surprise. Drama through some form of fine art usually consists of solo, duet, or group set pieces linked together with “talking bits” of some form, whether they are called recitative or not. One of the more pleasant distinctions between ballet and opera is that the former seems to permit the dancers to bow and accept applause after their set pieces — very nice. None of this “am I allowed to applaud now or not?” nonsense that causes tension and uncertainty in many classical music audiences and gives it an aura of pinched stuffiness. It’s very nice that the audience can applaud when they feel moved to do so, even in the middle of a piece, and that the dancers take time to accept applause for their work immediately after they’ve done it.

The music was, of course, wonderful even if it wasn’t one of Tchaikovsky’s own favorites. (He evidently liked “Sleeping Beauty” much better, but popular opinion’s latched onto the score from “The Nutcracker” pretty firmly as one of the few ballet scores that is loved enough to stand on its own. I doubt that anyone but dance lovers would recognize the score for “Coppelia” or “Swan Lake.”) Very legato and schmaltzy, but that’s what the ballet is about, and Tchaikovsky wasn’t the most intellectually distant composer in the world to start with, bless him. I was surprised at how most of the things he wrote for the cello reminded me of some of the very legato, lyrical work I’ve heard on electric guitars by a few popular musicians with that bent. (Not all electric guitarists are shredders.)

Much as I hate to say it, I can also see why the Philadelphia Orchestra moved to the Kimmel Center. The Academy, as magnificent as it is, is very much an old-style opera house, which means it’s built more to allow an unencumbered view of the stage than to favor acoustics. It’s a theater first and foremost, but an absolutely beautiful one.

The performance itself was quite good for the Balanchine version, featuring children in the child’s roles who did a splendid job for such young performers. The principal dancers in the ballet took the adult roles and did wonderful jobs with them, granted I’m probably not the best judge of that sort of thing and can’t compare them to other dancers or versions to determine how good they really were. All I knew is that they all impressed the hell out of me with speed, grace, and strength — and memory. Dance has its grammar but can’t (I think) be notated as thoroughly as music can, which means that the dancers have to retain an awful lot in their own memories. That’s what professionalism and endless rehearsals are about, I suppose. Still very impressive.

The PA Ballet also has its own orchestra, a smaller chamber-sized orchestra appropriate for the tiny orchestra pit in the Academy of Music. Very, very nice. I imagine it must be intimidating to perform such a well-loved and well-known score as that one. If anyone is one millisecond off, the entire audience (not just the devotees) loves their “Nutcracker,” and they will know it. People do see the “Nutcracker” wanting to like it, though, so perhaps you have the audience more on your side than most fine arts performances.

So all in all, a lovely time. And a great year for arts performances!

1) David Daniels and the English Concert doing Bach in March at Disney Hall,
2) Andreas Scholl and the ACO doing Haendel etc. in April at the Lobero Theater,
3) The LA Chamber Orchestra doing Vivaldi and Mendelssohn in October in the Alex Theater,
4) The LA Opera’s “Tamerlano” in November at Chandler Pavilion, and
5) The PA Ballet doing Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” in December at the Academy of Music!

I also watched the venerable Bolshoi performing a different version (more like the Baryshnikov one) on television, and was struck by the name “E. T. A. Hoffman” in the opening credits, named as the person who had written the original story on which the ballet was based. I was pleased to discover that my suspicion was correct: that this was the same name associated with “The Tales of Hoffman,” also revolving around fairy tales and clockwork dolls that come to life.

Next up may be the Philadelphia Orchestra with Nikolai Lugansky in May. If it were Montero, I’d have bought the tickets and plane flights already, but I’m still deciding. He’ll be performing Rach 3 though, which makes it very attractive.