A couple of weeks ago the Moscow Ballet’s traveling production of “The Nutcracker” came through Waco. Like many touring companies that stage the ballet, it used local children to dance several of the parts, and my daughter got to be in two numbers.
One of the pleasures for her was to watch professional dancers up close over the course of the day-long final dress rehearsal when the company finally arrived in town. She marveled at how much Russian she heard and the way in which the dancers carried themselves. She’d never experienced anything like it.
If you’ve seen many Nutcrackers, you know the wide variety of stagings, costumes, and interpretations that are out there. My personal favorite is the production by the San Francisco Ballet, resolutely Victorian in aesthetic with a street scene during the overture that may outrage purists but that situates you unmistakably in the City by the Bay, circa 1915.
You sure won’t mistake it for the familiar version made famous by the New York Ballet back in the middle of the 20th Century that shaped our idea of what the ballet “should” look like, but the visuals, dancing, and music are marvelous. (They made a DVD of it about 10 years ago that’s well worth getting if you’re a Nutcracker fan.)
I’ve written before about how Russian and American productions of “The Nutcracker” differ and that was evident here in Waco. The men dancers were much more athletic in their movements than American audiences are accustomed to seeing, and more consistently airborne with their leaps. A significantly older girl than in most American versions danced the part of Clara which always changes the dynamic between her and the prince.
In this version also, a preposterously young Drosselmeyer kept showing up in the second act, muscling his way into dances where he never “should” have been. The party scene in Act One was so crowded it made Clara’s living room look more like a subway platform at rush hour. And so on.
I recently read a review of a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Pirates of Penzance,” one of the most popular pieces of musical theater ever, staged by a Chicago-based troupe called “The Hypocrites.”
The reviewer clearly enjoyed the production but it was equally clear that this particular staging was, to put it mildly, non-traditional. Audiences enter the theater to find a stage transformed into a campy beach resort, complete with “a thatched-roof bar, a couple of inflatable kiddie pools and garlands of fairy lights,” and cast members that wander about playing instruments and interacting with the audience. As the old saying goes, this isn’t your grandma’s Gilbert and Sullivan.
Does it matter?
No, it doesn’t. A good interaction with art has to involve being open to experiencing something new. It may not be immediately evident, but familiarity can actually hinder our ability to experience art in its fullest power. Ernest Hemingway once said something like he’d rather be able to read D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Sons and Lovers” again for the first time than have an income of a million dollars a year. He understands it. The rest of us, however, tend to get comfortable — not to say fall into ruts — with our favorite pieces of art, no less than we wind up taking the same route to work every day.
If an evening of art doesn’t involve a favorite composer, playwright, or painter, we hesitate or get upset. But when we’re receptive to different artists and to different interpretations of the familiar, we also become open to a richer appreciation of art itself.